Saturday, April 07, 2001

Birth control

Pill puts pharmacist to the test

        If you have to paint me as a hypocrite, that's OK,” Robert Hay says.

        He's so polite — I suspect he secretly wants the embarrassment. Then he would have to face his conflict.

        Mr. Hay is a Boone County commissioner, a pharmacist and a board member of the Northern Kentucky Independent District Health Department.

        On the health board, he's pushing to ban birth-control pills from public clinics in five counties. He's close to prevailing: Such a motion died last year on a vote of 11-11.

        But at the Florence Walgreens where he works, Mr. Hay regularly fills prescriptions for the same pills. They appear to be OK for his customers, but not for the low-income women who use the clinics.

        Mr. Hay objects to birth-control pills because he's afraid they prevent fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus. He considers this tantamount to abortion, which he strongly opposes.

        And yet he dispenses such pills for a living — up to 60 prescriptions per weekend.

        “I'm increasingly under a burden here,” he says quietly. “It's a hard place to be. Every day I go in and every time I dispense one, you just wonder, "What's going to happen here?'”

State laws unclear
        If he stops, he won't have a specific Kentucky law behind him. Neither Kentucky nor Ohio has a clause protecting pharmacists who refuse to dispense certain drugs. In both states, however, medical professionals cannot be disciplined for refusing to participate in abortions.

        Under this law, Ohio pharmacist Karen Brauer sued Kmart in 1999, saying she was fired for declining to sell birth-control pills. A federal judge recently allowed the lawsuit to continue.

        The pills aren't supposed to work by preventing the implantation of fertilized eggs. They're supposed to prevent ovulation so eggs aren't fertilized at all. But ovulation sometimes does occur, and in those cases, the eggs can't find purchase in the uterus.

        “Morning-after” pills depend on this phenomenon and are even more troubling to Mr. Hay.

        He already has refused to dispense them, he says. And contrary to Walgreens' policy, he hasn't sent those patients to other pharmacists.

        Carol Hively, a Walgreens spokeswoman, said she wasn't familiar with Mr. Hay's situation.

        But in general, Walgreens tries to respect its pharmacists' convictions while making sure customers are satisfied. This means they should be graciously referred elsewhere, she says.

Against premarital sex

        In addition to his pill concerns, Mr. Hay thinks premarital sex shouldn't be subsidized with public money. But refusing the unmarried while prescribing for the married would be discriminatory.

        So it's best to refuse everyone at the public health clinics, he concludes. Those who can afford better ... well, they can afford better.

        To his credit, Mr. Hay acknowledges the double standard.

        “I think I know what I need to do,” he says, referring to dispensing pills. “It's a thing of courage.”

        I admire people who stand up for their convictions. But I also believe women and their doctors can make their own moral decisions.

        Birth-control pills are a legal, effective way to prevent pregnancy. To those who would deny women this choice: Please don't become pharmacists.

       Karen Samples can be reached at (859) 578-5584 or


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