Birth-Control Pills And Rights (2006 Feb)

by Barry A. Liebling

The war between pro-abortion and anti-abortion advocates intensified in January 2006. Four pharmacists, with the support of the religiously-oriented American Center for Law and Justice (, are suing Walgreens ( The pharmacists maintain they were illegally suspended for refusing to sign a pledge to dispense morning-after birth-control pills. One month earlier the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America ( commended Walgreens for disciplining these pharmacists who did not comply.

Some observers have remarked that this case shows the inherent conflicts between the rights of women seeking morning-after contraception and of pharmacists who do not approve of these pills. But individual rights, properly understood, are not in conflict. Instead, trouble arises when legal actions, demands, and wishes are mistaken for rights.

Consider the pharmacy retailer who might stock emergency contraceptives. The retailer who sees value in this product can negotiate with the manufacturer. If the terms are mutually agreeable, the pharmacy will sell the morning-after pill. Alternatively, the management of the pharmacy might decide not to sell the manufacturer’s pills. The product may not meet the retailer’s standards or the cost may be unacceptable. Notice that a legal drug may be sold at a pharmacy, but a pharmacy is not morally obligated to sell a drug just because it is legal.

Now turn to the case of a woman who wants to purchase the morning-after pill. If the pill is legal she has the right to buy it from any pharmacy that is in a position to sell it to her. This does not mean that any particular pharmacy should be required to stock an item just because she wants it. The exact price and terms of the emergency contraceptive have to be agreeable both to the woman and to the vendor. If she does not like the offering, she can shop around for a better deal.

It is noteworthy that in this age of internet access, toll-free numbers, discount suppliers, and overnight delivery services the selection of pharmacies that might fill the woman’s prescription is vast. Nobody needs to be a prisoner of the corner drugstore.

NARAL Pro-Choice America has a different view of what rights a woman has with respect to the morning-after pill. Material on their website argues that if a woman wants emergency contraception pharmacy retailers and pharmacists have a duty to sell it to her – whether they personally approve of the pill or not. Furthermore, the organization asserts that a pharmacist should not be allowed to try talking the woman out of using the pill.

Regarding the pharmacist – he or she should always act ethically. If a pharmacist has good reasons to believe that a drug is on balance harmful, he should refrain from dispensing it. This is in keeping with the professional role of pharmacists which includes exercising good judgment. If a pharmacist takes a job in a company that sells a drug he does not believe should be dispensed he has several options. First, he can attempt to persuade management that the store should not stock the drug. Management may or may not be convinced. Second, he can negotiate a deal with his employer that he will not personally be involved in dispensing the drug. Again, the employer may decide to comply with the pharmacist’s request or may refuse. Third, the pharmacist can leave the company and seek employment elsewhere.

The crucial consideration in evaluating the relationship between the pharmacist and the company is mutual consent. Each party has the right to terminate the association. The employer and employee should stay together only if each believes it is advantageous.

Is Walgreens correct in requiring pharmacists to sign an agreement that they will dispense emergency contraceptives? Perhaps it is a considered, wise business decision. Alternatively, they might be better off accommodating to those pharmacists who object by assigning other employees to that part of the business. Certainly the management of Walgreens has the right to decide the issue themselves. No outside coercive action should substitute for their best judgment.

The American Center for Law and Justice sees things differently. They not only believe that Walgreens made the wrong business decision, they do not recognize the right of Walgreens management to set the rules of employment. Their stance is that the principle of mutual consent is trumped by the pharmacists’ personal sentiments.

It is not likely that the American Center for Law and Justice and NARAL Pro-Choice America will ever see eye-to-eye. It is telling that each organization makes the same mistake of confusing legal actions, demands, and wishes for rights.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

Comments are closed.