The Art of Legislating Morality

Jane Sherman

Last week's story on CVS's corporate policy allowing its pharmacists to deny prescriptions on the basis of "deeply held personal beliefs" offered that there was no state law allowing--or preventing, for that matter--such refusals (see "Casting a Chill on the Pill," 2/16/05). While no legislation regarding "refusal clauses" has been passed or enacted in Minnesota, State Rep. Mary Ellen Otremba (DFL-Long Prairie) introduced bills in both the 1999-2000 and 2003-04 legislative sessions that, in fact, would seem to go even further than the CVS policy.

The most recent version of the bill stated, "The [pharmacy] board must not discipline a pharmacist for refusing to dispense, or refusing to assist a patient in obtaining, a prescription whose use the pharmacist opposes for moral or religious reasons" (emphasis added).

This wording implies that it would be just fine for a pharmacist not only to refuse to dispense a prescription, but also to refuse referral to another pharmacist from whom the patient could obtain the drug. Otremba says she will "probably" introduce such a bill again. The bills, according to the lawmaker, were a direct result of requests from pharmacists in her district who are opposed to RU-486, a drug used to induce abortion. Her concern is that, if forced to dispense RU-486, some of these pharmacists would instead resign from their jobs, leaving a shortage of such professionals in Otremba's largely rural district. "We can't afford for them to quit," she says.

But her proposed bills don't only apply to RU-486, nor would a future version. Otremba said that she modeled the bill after "conscience clause" statutes already on the books that deal with doctors and nurses, saying that such professionals can opt out of providing care to which they're "morally opposed." Isn't her legislation casting a rather wide interpretation of what that might be? "I'm not worried about it," Otremba says, adding that she "just doesn't see" pharmacists using the clause to refuse anything other than RU-486. Given a hypothetical situation set in Otremba's rural district--a woman being refused birth control from the only pharmacist near her home--the legislator again expresses no worry. "I'm sure they would drive to another town," she says.

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