Date: Mon, 19 Jan 2009 20:26:51 -0500

By Scott Alessi

Pharmacists put pro-life teachings into practice

Our Sunday Visitor -- 18 Jan 2009

Small, independently owned stores offer customers a faith-filled atmosphere and quality service, not contraceptives

At a growing number of pharmacies nationwide, patrons bearing a prescription for contraceptives are being turned away by pharmacists who are taking a stand for their beliefs.

Akin to a standard pharmacy in all ways except the sale of artificial birth control products, pro-life pharmacies have sprung up in communities throughout the country. Taking the form of small, independently owned drugstores, these businesses allow their employees to practice pharmacy in a way that is consistent with their faith. They also provide an alternative for customers who do not wish to support businesses that dispense contraceptives.

"There's a lot of Catholics out there who like to practice their faith beyond their house or their church, and they would like to come to business where they don't have to leave their faith at the door," said Robert Laird, executive director of Divine Mercy Care, which owns the pro-life DMC Pharmacy in Chantilly, Va. "They want to be able to support a pharmacy that supports their beliefs."

DMC Pharmacy, which opened Oct. 20, is the latest pharmacy to adopt a wholly pro-life approach to its business. Divine Mercy Care, which serves as a health care organization for the Diocese of Arlington, Va., also operates Tepeyac Family Center, a pro-life obstetrics and gynecological medical clinic in Fairfax.

Growing trend

The desire for those in the pharmaceutical industry to reconcile their beliefs with their business practices is not new. In 1984, pharmacist Bogomir Kuhar founded Pharmacists for Life International, an organization that provides support and legal assistance to pharmacists who choose not to sell contraceptives.

Pharmacists for Life president Karen Brauer became a spokesperson for the group after being fired from her job for refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control pills, citing their ability to act as an abortifacient. Brauer told Our Sunday Visitor that while there is "no way to know" just how many pro-life pharmacies exist in the United States at this time, there is a growing trend among pharmacists to stop selling contraceptives as more individuals become aware of their potential risks.

"People change over time in how much they understand about the pill, and a lot of pharmacists are along that path, too," she said. "A lot of them will dispense the regular birth control pills, but they will not dispense the 'morning-after' pill because it has too much of an abortive method, so they draw their line at that place. And I respect them -- they are pro-life, they are developing their understanding and probably sooner or later a whole lot of them are going to quit dispensing the pill, too."

The Pharmacists for Life website includes a listing of six pro-life pharmacies, but Brauer said she is aware of many more that exist around the country. She suggested that customers can find other pharmacies in their area that have a pro-life approach through an Internet search. In many cases, she explained, the pharmacies have been the subject of local news stories or have garnered attention from pro-choice groups such as Planned Parenthood and NARAL.

Although Pharmacists for Life is a Catholic organization, Brauer said that they have worked with pharmacists of other faiths who also have chosen not to sell contraceptives in their stores.

"They are not all 100 percent ideologically committed to the Catholic belief on contraception but if they are pro-life and they are acting on their conscience, we will assist them," she said.

Business decision

Mike Koelzer, owner of Kay Pharmacy in Grand Rapids, Mich., made the decision to stop selling contraceptives at his business in 2002. Koelzer, a third-generation pharmacist, told OSV that while it was difficult at first to convince his father to make such a change, he felt that it was more important to follow his conscience.

"I am really just following what the medical profession and the pharmacy business should be," Koelzer said. "We should be promoting life, and we should not be promoting drugs that can harm people, no matter how big those people are and no matter whether they are in the womb or not in the womb."

After discontinuing the sale of birth control products, Koelzer said that he sent out letters to the more than 230 regular customers who had prescriptions for contraceptives to apprise them of the change. As he expected, the move resulted in Kay Pharmacy losing a portion of its customer base.

"It did make a dent in our business," Koelzer said. "You are losing the person that uses the contraceptives, which was about 4 percent of our business, and you are typically losing their husbands and you are typically losing any children they might have, so now the whole family is gone just because you are not carrying one drug."

But even though he did not originally intend to promote the pharmacy's new pro-life business model as a means of attracting new customers, Koelzer has found that the media attention he's received over the decision has done just that.

"We do have people saying they are coming from larger distances to buy from us," he said. "I don't know if it has quite evened out the loss, but we are certainly happy to have those customers, and I think more so we are happy to be able to give them an option to trade with someone who is not dispensing abortifacients."

Competitive edge

Laird said that the DMC Pharmacy, which is located in a busy metropolitan area filled with competing pharmacies, expects to draw on the area's large Catholic population to support its business. But more importantly, he said, they will rely on quality customer service and personalized care that large chains such as CVS and Walgreens cannot deliver.

"It is how we treat people that is the secret," Laird said. "We should treat everybody coming into our practice, everyone coming into our store, our co-workers, our superiors or our subordinates as if they are Christ. We firmly believe that, and we put that into practice every day in what we do."

Those customers who do come in with a prescription for contraceptives will politely be referred to any of the area's other pharmacies, two of which are located in the same shopping plaza as DMC Pharmacy, Laird said. While such practices will result in losing some customers, he explained, the pharmacy is confident that its approach to doing business will attract many others.

"It is more than about just birth control," Laird told OSV. "It is about being good to people and treating them with respect and dignity. And I think if anybody does that, that will win people over and that will begin changing hearts."

Pharmacists encouraged to follow conscience

In his 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae ("On Human Life"), Pope Paul VI outlined the Catholic Church's objection to contraception, stating that artificial birth control is intrinsically at odds with the Church's teaching on the sacredness of human life.

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI reinforced this teaching in an address to Catholic pharmacists, informing them that they have the right to object to dispensing any drug as a matter of conscience.

"It is not possible to anaesthetize consciences, for example, concerning the effects of particles whose purpose is to prevent an embryo's implantation or to shorten a person's life," the pope told members of the International Congress of Catholic Pharmacists. "The pharmacist must invite each person to advance humanity, so that every being may be protected from the moment of conception until natural death, and that medicines may fulfill properly their therapeutic role.

"In the moral domain, your federation is invited to address the issue of conscientious objection, which is a right your profession must recognize, permitting you not to collaborate either directly or indirectly by supplying products for the purpose of decisions that are clearly immoral such as, for example, abortion or euthanasia."

Scott Alessi writes from New Jersey.

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