Pharmacists could refuse to dispense contraception based on moral grounds under bill

Editor’s note: This is one in a series of occasional stories produced by, a Kansas University journalism project that focuses on news about upcoming state and national campaigns.

In college towns across the country, thousands of students rely on university health centers and corporate pharmacies for their contraception. For the most part, those pharmacies have internal policies ensuring its customers’ rights to receive contraception, even if its pharmacist does not want to fill the prescription because of moral objections.

In Lawrence, Kansas University’s Watkins Memorial Health Center allows pharmacists to refuse service for contraception but has a policy that “staff would seek out a willing employee” to fill the prescription, said Cathy Thrasher, pharmacist in charge at Watkins. Watkins would continue that policy if a bill under consideration in the state Legislature passes.

Similarly, Kmart, Walgreens, Walmart and CVS have corporate policies that essentially say pharmacists may refuse to fill a prescription, as long as he or she turns the customer over to another pharmacist in the building or refers the prescription to a nearby pharmacist. That’s the position the American Pharmacists Association, which governs ethics for the profession, has recommended since 2009.

But a bill under consideration in the Kansas House could allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for contraception on moral grounds and would make Kansas one of nine states to legally protect a pharmacist’s right to refuse.

According to the bill, pharmacists who believe a drug may lead to an abortion could refuse service. The bill’s language gives the pharmacist too much leeway, say reproductive rights advocates, who argue the bill could result in drugs ranging from birth control to emergency contraception being refused.

While areas served by corporate pharmacies such as Walmart have policies in place to ensure customers are served, that is not necessarily the case in rural areas, where one pharmacist may serve an entire town.

“If the facility, doctor or pharmacist refuses, for those women in small rural communities, where else are you supposed to go?” said Sarah Gillooly, a lobbyist with Planned Parenthood of Kansas.

A survey of six small-town pharmacies in Baldwin City, Eudora and Ottawa found none that had policies concerning pharmacists refusing to provide contraception. In many cases this was because the pharmacists had no problem with providing contraception and felt no policy was needed.

At least one Kansas pharmacist plans on exercising the right to refuse, should the law pass. Topeka pharmacist Daniel Sutherland testified before the Kansas House that he would like to stop providing contraception at his pharmacy but feared being sued.

There have also been high-profile cases in other states where pharmacists have refused to provide contraception. In 2005, a 21-year-old woman living in a small New Hampshire town was refused emergency contraception and was unable to find someone to provide it until the 72-hour window for Plan B, which can prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex, had already passed.

Three years earlier, Wisconsin pharmacist Neil T. Noesen refused to fill a college student’s prescription for oral contraception and was later fired from his job at a Kmart pharmacy. Headlines from that case rippled across state lines, sparking a number of states to introduce legislation that would protect pharmacists like Noesen.

On the other side of the debate, then-Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich implemented a rule in 2005 saying pharmacists must dispense Plan B. However, that was overturned by the Illinois Supreme Court last year.

Currently, four states — Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and South Dakota — have laws like the one proposed in Kansas. Colorado, Florida, Maine and Tennessee have broader laws protecting health care providers who refuse to provide contraception, which do not specifically mention pharmacists but are thought to include them.

— Political Fiber Reporter Erin Heger contributed to this story.