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The Buck Seldom Stops with Pharmacists

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 29, 2007

Speaking to the International Federation of Catholic Pharmacists earlier today, Pope Benedict XVI urged pharmacists to conscientiously object to the dispensing of drugs prescribed to induce abortion or euthanasia. This puts pharmacists in a tough spot, because many of them don’t have the luxury of determining their own dispensary policies.

I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but in my little corner of it, independent pharmacies are a thing of the past. Gone are the days when a pharmacist or two could get together to own and operate a store. Most pharmacies now are part of giant chains. The individual pharmacists working in those chains have no control over what drugs are dispensed, and very little if any influence on corporate policy.

Pharmacies have been dispensing immoral drugs (and other things) for years, at least since contraception became widespread. Granted that some methods of contraception might be morally neutral outside of marriage, and granted further than some contraceptive formulas can be used to treat genuine medical problems, the widespread dispensing of contraceptives is clearly at least a remote cooperation in serious evil, even when a particular contraceptive is not abortifacient. Newer drugs deliberately advertised for abortion only exacerbate the problem.

For this reason alone, were I trained as a pharmacist, I would have long since explored setting up shop in a region that still supports local, pharmacist-owned stores—or else I would have opted out of the business altogether. Each person needs to examine his own situation closely and with competent spiritual direction, but it seems to me that the career of pharmacist is, in certain regions of the world, all but impossible now to pursue with a clear conscience. Doctors, of course, are far more guilty but also probably have greater choice in most instances. Lower down, the clerks manning the cash registers face the same dilemma, though with a more remote cooperation at stake.

In any profession, people must behave morally, and must give up their jobs if they cannot keep them without behaving immorally. However, we need to be clear about what this may mean for pharmacists. In many places, they will not have the option of acting morally within their profession because there will be no viable commercial circumstances under which they can possibly exercise sufficient control. Nor is the confluence of moral Catholic pharmacists likely to make a sufficient dent in the profession to influence any sort of change. In other words, the only practical moral choice in a large number of cases will be to give up not just one particular job, but one’s livelihood.

It will be interesting to see if the International Federation of Catholic Pharmacists has anything to say about this problem, or whether that organization believes there are still many places to work where pharmacists can control their own drug policies. I have to wonder whether a pharmacist would be able to negotiate a conscience clause with his employer in larger stores where there are several pharmacists on staff. If so, this would provide a method of bearing witness inside the profession, but the viability of the concept seems dubious to me.

Pharmacists are up against it, and have been for a long time. In the context of pharmaceutical practice in my region, it is difficult to see how pharmacists could pursue Benedict’s idea of conscientious objection. I hope I am wrong, but the bottom line is that they may have to change their line of work.

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