A rape victim, wanting to guard against an unwanted pregnancy, tried to fill a prescription for the so-called morning-after contraceptive pill at an Eckerd pharmacy.
But in a decision that cost him his job, pharmacist Gene Herr, citing religious convictions, turned her away.
Herr’s decision and Eckerd’s response angered people on both sides of the abortion debate, reigniting a discussion over whether pharmacists should be able to follow their religious and moral beliefs when dispensing drugs.
“I don’t think it’s fair that I be forced to participate in a chain of events that results in the taking of a life,” Herr said. “I feel like what Eckerd wanted me to do, they were forcing me to do something that I see is wrong.”
But Eckerd spokeswoman Joan Gallagher said the company’s employment manual makes it clear that pharmacists are never allowed to decline to fill a prescription for moral or religious reasons.
A friend of the rape victim said the decision last month by Herr and two co-workers to reject the prescription written by an emergency room physician amounted to a second victimization. The co-workers also were fired.
“I couldn’t believe my ears that a pharmacist was using a moral judgment to decide whether to fill a prescription,” said the friend, who took the rape victim to the pharmacy and asked that she remain anonymous.
“I had been ... watching my friend, her emotional state going down and down and down. And I knew I was going to have to go out to that car and say, ’Sorry, you know, morally they say you’re wrong,”’ he said.
Taken within 72 hours of unprotected intercourse, the pills are at least 75 percent effective at preventing pregnancy. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is expected to decide in May whether to allow sales of the pills without a prescription.
The pills prevent ovulation or fertilization of an egg. If fertilization already has occurred, the pills prevent the egg from implanting into the uterus — the medical definition of pregnancy.
Herr and many anti-abortion groups believe pregnancy begins with fertilization and say dispensing the drugs is equal to participating in an abortion.
Under Texas law, no doctor, nurse, staff member or employee of a hospital or health care center may be forced to participate in an abortion. It is unclear, however, whether that protection extends to Texas pharmacists and whether the morning-after pill falls under the definition of an abortion procedure.
South Dakota is the only state that has passed a law allowing pharmacists to decline to dispense drugs that could cause abortions or be used in physician-assisted suicides. The issue has not come up in recent Texas legislative sessions.
“I think pharmacists should be protected by the same conscience clause and oversight that other health care providers are,” said Elizabeth Graham, director of the Texas Right to Life Committee.
But Kathryn Allen, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of North Texas, said she is concerned about the precedent a conscience clause could set.
“Where do you stop?” she said. “Today they say they’re not going to dispense emergency contraception. Tomorrow they’re going to say ’We’re not going to give birth control to single women.”’
Gay Dodson, executive director of the State Board of Pharmacy, said the board has asked lawmakers to clarify when pharmacists can opt out of filling a prescription. She said the board likely would not discipline a pharmacist who did so because the Pharmacy Act does not clearly prohibit it.
Pharmacy chains have widely varying policies governing when their pharmacists can decline filling a prescription.
Some chains, such as Florida-based Eckerd, say no pharmacist can ever choose not to fill a prescription solely on moral or religious grounds. Others, like Walgreens, where the rape victim eventually received the medication, allow pharmacists to abstain as long as they help the patient find another pharmacist who can fill the prescription.
Hiram Sasser, Herr’s attorney, said Eckerd’s policy violates part of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits private companies from forcing employees to do something that violates their religious beliefs. Herr and his attorney are evaluating whether to pursue a lawsuit against Eckerd.