December 6, 2005

Many Pharmacists Against Morning-after Pill Law

By Anthony J. Brown, MD

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - In a recent survey of US pharmacists, 39 percent of respondents said they were against state laws that would require them to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception, otherwise known as the morning-after pill.

This finding comes just days after four Illinois pharmacists were put on unpaid leave by their employer Walgreen Co. for refusing to fill such prescriptions. According to media reports, their refusals, apparently due to moral or religious objections, go against a state rule imposed in April that requires pharmacies selling FDA-approved contraceptives to fill prescriptions for emergency birth control.

The Walgreen policy, according to a spokesperson, is that pharmacists can refuse to prescribe agents that violate their moral beliefs, except where state law prohibits, provided that they take steps to have the prescription filled elsewhere. Attorneys for the pharmacists are considering legal action if Walgreen does not reconsider its stance against their clients.

In the current survey, HCD Research, a New Jersey-based marketing and communications research company, surveyed a nationally representative sample of 859 pharmacists.

"Sixty-nine percent of pharmacists said they should have the authority to refuse filling prescriptions for emergency contraception," Glenn R. Kessler, managing partner of HCD Research, told Reuters Health. "We are actually daunted by the number of pharmacists who've called us to explain their feelings on this topic. I've never had this happen before."

Thirty-nine percent of respondents believed that state laws should not require pharmacists to fill certain prescriptions, Kessler said. The remaining 61 percent were generally in favor of laws requiring pharmacists to fill prescriptions, but the majority favored having the option of referring patients to a different pharmacist if they found a prescription objectionable.

By comparison, in a poll of physicians conducted by HCD Research in June, 79 percent of respondents supported state laws that require pharmacists to fill prescriptions despite their religious objections.

Regarding the Walgreen case, 63 percent of pharmacists who responded to the current survey did not believe the company should have put the four pharmacists on unpaid leave for refusing to fill the emergency contraception prescriptions. Twenty-nine percent of respondents, however, supported the company's action.

HCDI Survey 2005.