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San Jose Mercury, October 31, 2007

Pharmacist's duty to patient, not pope

EDITORIAL

Pope Benedict XVI is entitled to call on pharmacists in his flock to refuse to dispense certain prescription drugs - involving birth control or euthanasia - if they have a conscientious objection to them.

But pharmacists throughout the world have a moral obligation to their patients and should ignore the pontiff's plea.

Benedict told a gathering of Catholic pharmacists Monday that they have the right to refuse to dispense emergency contraception or euthanasia drugs to people who have been given prescriptions by their doctors. He also said they should inform patients of the ethical implications of using certain drugs.

That's objectionable on many levels. But what next? Will the pope demand that pharmacists be required to ask women seeking fertility drugs if they are married? Should those pharmacists feel an obligation to ask men to prove they are straight and married before dispensing drugs that enhance sexual performance or stem AIDS? And should pharmacists of the future be allowed to prevent patients from receiving drugs developed through stem cell research?

Medical decisions should be made by patients and their physicians in doctor's offices, not by the pope or other religious leaders in churches or at the drug counter.

Californians should take pride in knowing that this is one area in which its Legislature is a model for the nation. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2005 signed a bill, which was backed by the California Pharmacists Association, that prohibits pharmacies from obstructing patients from obtaining drugs or devices prescribed by their doctor. It does permit pharmacists with moral objections to dispensing a prescription drug to allow another pharmacist to fill the prescription, as long as it is done in a prompt manner. It does not prevent pharmacists from lecturing patients about their choices, but it should.

The state of Washington in April joined California in passing a policy that prohibits pharmacists from failing to dispense prescription drugs for religious or moral reasons.

Reps. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y. and Chris Shays, R-Conn., and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., have introduced similar legislation in Congress. If it passes the House and Senate, and it should, it would likely be vetoed by President Bush, who has already expressed his displeasure with the bill.

A handful of states, including Georgia and South Dakota, have joined the president in allowing pharmacists to follow their conscience at the workplace.

That should be viewed as unacceptable, particularly in rural states where the nearest alternative pharmacy may be more than an hour's drive away.

Pharmacists who cannot bring themselves to fill a prescription for moral or religious reasons should find a new profession.

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