Pharmacists' Duties Subject of Hearings on Hill

Several states allow pharmacists to decline to fill prescriptions based on their conscience. Other states are trying to require that pharmacists provide medicines that doctors have prescribed. Now federal lawmakers are holding hearings on so-called "duty to fill" laws.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Some pharmacists around the US have refused to dispense birth control pills or other medicines to which they have moral objections, and that's led to a debate. Several states have explicitly allowed pharmacists to decline to fill prescriptions based on their conscience, while some others are trying to require that pharmacists provide medicines that doctors have prescribed. Now the issue has reached Capitol Hill. NPR's Julie Rovner reports.

JULIE ROVNER reporting:

The first congressional hearing on what's called pharmacist's duty to fill laws was held in the unlikely venue of the House Small Business Committee. Even some of the committee's members wondered what the connection was, including its ranking Democrat, New York Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez.

Congresswoman NYDIA VELAZQUEZ (Democrat, New York): Whether or not a small pharmacy in any state chooses to fill prescriptions for birth control is not an issue for this committee to decide upon. It is a women's right issue, her right to access health care and her right to live her life as she pleases.

ROVNER: But it just may have something to do with the fact that Illinois is about to make permanent its requirement that pharmacists fill contraceptive prescriptions promptly and that the committee's chairman, Illinois Republican Donald Manzullo, has some doubts about the policy imposed by his state's Democratic governor.

Representative DONALD MANZULLO (Republican, Illinois): No one, least of all a health care provider, should be required to violate his or her conscience by participating in procedures that he or she deems harmful. The government should never force anyone to choose between his business or his beliefs.

ROVNER: Particularly at issue is whether emergency contraception, the so-called morning-after pill, can act by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman's uterus. Pharmacists who believe that, like committee witness Luke Vander Bleek of Morrison, Illinois, say they consider the drug tantamount to abortion.

Mr. LUKE VANDER BLEEK (Pharmacist, Morrison, Illinois): Because there is no scientific evidence that convinces me in a compelling way that these products will not have the opportunity to extinguish the life of a human embryo, I will not stock and will not dispense these products.

ROVNER: But Sheila Nix, a senior aide to Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, said his goal is to ensure women have access to all forms of contraception and that the Food and Drug Administration classifies the morning-after pill, which consists of high doses of regular birth control pills, as a contraceptive.

Ms. SHEILA NIX (Senior Aide, Governor Rod Blagojevich): The rule is meant to make sure that all Illinois pharmacies dispense birth control prescriptions without hassle, without lecture and without delay.

ROVNER: That wasn't the case for Megan Kelly, a high school art teacher from Geneva, Illinois. When Kelly's regular birth control prescription ran out over the July Fourth holiday weekend, her doctor both renewed that prescription and ordered a round of morning-after pills. But when she went to a local pharmacy to pick them up...

Ms. MEGAN KELLY (Teacher, Geneva, Illinois): I was humiliated and discriminated against by a pharmacist who refused to fill my prescriptions for birth control pills and emergency contraception based on her own personal views.

ROVNER: Kelly's story didn't evoke much sympathy from Colorado Republican, Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave.

Congresswoman MARILYN MUSGRAVE (Republican, Colorado): Sometimes I had to drive across town to get a prescription filled. Maybe I had to drive several miles. But I still did it and it seems unseemly to me to compare a matter of inconvenience to a matter of conscience.

ROVNER: Democrats in the House and Senate have already introduced legislation that mirrors Illinois' requirement that pharmacies fill contraceptive prescriptions, including the morning-after pill. Republicans haven't said yet whether they will introduce legislation that would explicitly provide pharmacists the ability to say no. Julie Rovner, NPR News, Washington.

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