Pharmacists not required to dispense Plan B

But must refer patient to another source

A federal judge suspended controversial Washington State rules that required pharmacies to dispense the Plan B emergency contraceptive. The judge said the rules appeared to unconstitutionally violate pharmacists' freedom of religion.

Meanwhile, Pope Benedict XVI said pharmacists have a right to use conscientious objection to avoid dispensing emergency contraception or euthanasia drugs and said they should inform patients of the ethical implications of using such drugs.

In the Washington case, federal judge Ronald Leighton said the state rules appeared to force pharmacists to choose between their own religious beliefs and their livelihood. "Whether or not Plan B…terminates a pregnancy," he wrote, "to those who believe that life begins at conception, the drug is designed to terminate a life." He said the state's requirements "appear designed to impose a Hobson's choice for the majority of pharmacists who object to Plan B: Dispense a drug that ends a life as defined by their religious teachings, or leave their present positions in the state of Washington."

Under the judge's order, pharmacists may refuse to dispense the drug but must refer the requesting patient to "the nearest" or a "nearby" source for it.

The preliminary injunction was issued in a federal lawsuit filed against the state by pharmacists and a store owner who objected to providing Plan B to customers. The case is set for trial next October.

The state regulations required pharmacists to dispense Plan B and allowed individual pharmacists to opt out only if a co-worker present in the same pharmacy could do the job.

At the core of the debate, according to local media accounts, is a fundamental disagreement on whether Plan B can terminate a pregnancy. If it is taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, it generally works by preventing ovulation or fertilization.

It won't terminate an established pregnancy, but in some cases could prevent implantation of a fertilized egg in the uterus.

Medicines should be 'therapeutic'

Meanwhile, in a speech to participants at the 25th International Congress of Catholic Pharmacists in Rome, Pope Benedict XVI said pharmacists "must seek to raise people's awareness so that all human beings are protected from conception to natural death, and so that medicines truly play a therapeutic role."

He urged the pharmacists to consider conscientious objection a right that must be recognized for their profession "so as to enable them not to collaborate directly or indirectly in supplying products that have clearly immoral purposes such as, for example, abortion or euthanasia. We cannot anesthetize consciences as regards, for example, the effect of certain molecules that have the goal of preventing the implantation of the embryo or shortening a person's life."

International media accounts indicated Benedict's comments were welcomed in Italy, where pharmacists are required to fill prescriptions regardless of their moral or ethical positions. A national federation representing more than 15,000 private pharmacies said the law there would have to be changed to allow for conscientious objection if Benedict's recommendation were to be followed. But it said it would be difficult to apply since pharmacists could then object to dispensing basic contraception or other hormonal drugs prescribed for medical reasons as well.