updated 6/21/2005 10:46:31 AM ET 2005-06-21T14:46:31

The American Medical Association on Monday agreed to use its clout to try to ensure that pharmacists' moral objections don't block patients' access to needed medicine, including emergency contraceptives.

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The action was prompted by complaints from several physicians' groups who say a growing number of pharmacists nationwide are refusing to fill prescriptions for contraceptives they consider a form of abortion.

"This is an issue of access to care for patients," Dr. Mary Frank, a California family physician, told AMA delegates before Monday's vote. "It's affecting not just women," but also patients using psychiatric medication, painkillers and other drugs.

Under the policy adopted at the AMA's annual meeting, the nation's largest physicians' group will support legislation that requires pharmacists to fill valid prescriptions or to immediately refer patients to other pharmacies that will.

Doctors at the Chicago meeting noted that Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich enacted a temporary rule in April ordering pharmacies that stock emergency contraceptives to provide the drugs to customers, a response to some Chicago pharmacists who refused to do so.

Access to necessary medication
When used after sex, emergency contraceptives help block a fertilized egg from implanting in the womb.

Passed or pending legislation in several states protects pharmacists who cite moral, religious or personal reasons for refusing to fill prescriptions.

The American Pharmacists Association supports pharmacists' right to refuse but urges those who do to have referral systems to ensure patient access to necessary medication. Association spokeswoman Gail Street said in some areas doctors already dispense medication when pharmacists aren't available, but said that situation "isn't optimal" because it deprives patients of a pharmacist's consultation.

In other Monday action, the AMA without debate adopted a watered-down measure prompted by reports of alleged military doctor involvement in prisoner mistreatment at Guantanamo Bay, Afghanistan and Iraq.

The AMA reaffirmed its support of the ethical medical treatment of prisoners of war and said it will "encourage medical schools to include ethics training on the issue of medical treatment of prisoners of war and detainees."

The original proposal's co-sponsor, Dr. Erica Frank of Atlanta, said it was prompted by reports in the New England Journal of Medicine and from the International Red Cross alleging that military medical personnel collaborated in or were told not to report unethical treatment of prisoners.

"It matters for us to speak out on this," she said during an emotional committee session Sunday at which angry physicians called her measure slanderous.

The original proposal asked the AMA to condemn any doctor participation in or failure to report detainee abuse. Opponents argued that the reports of abuse involving doctors are false.

The failed proposal represented "thinly veiled slander of the military physician," said Dr. Richard Ambur of Silverdale, Wash., who served as a Navy surgeon in the Vietnam War. The AMA voted on the committee's revision of the measure; the new measure does not acknowledge any abuse involving doctors occurred.

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