Refusals by pharmacists to dispense emergency contraception: a critique

Obstet Gynecol. 2006 May;107(5):1148-51. doi: 10.1097/01.AOG.0000214951.46283.40.


Over the past several months, numerous instances have been reported in the United States media of pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions written for emergency postcoital contraceptives. These pharmacists have asserted a "professional right of conscience" not to participate in what they interpret as an immoral act. In this commentary, we examine this assertion and conclude that it is not justifiable, for the following reasons: 1) postcoital contraception does not interfere with an implanted pregnancy and, therefore, does not cause an abortion; 2) because pharmacists do not control the therapeutic decision to prescribe medication but only exercise supervisory control over its dispensation, they do not possess the "professional right" to refuse to fill a legitimate prescription; 3) even if one were to grant pharmacists the "professional right" not to dispense prescriptions based on their own personal values and opinions, pharmacists "at the counter" lack the fundamental prerequisites necessary for making clinically sound ethical decisions, that is, they do not have access to the patient's complete medical background or the patient's own ethical preferences, have not discussed relevant quality-of-life issues with the patient, and do not understand the context in which the patient's clinical problem is occurring. We conclude that a policy that allows pharmacists to dispense or not dispense medications to patients on the basis of their personal values and opinions is inimical to the public welfare and should not be permitted.

Publication types

  • Case Reports

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Contraceptives, Postcoital*
  • Emergency Medical Services*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Pharmaceutical Services / ethics*
  • Pharmaceutical Services / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Pharmacists / ethics*
  • Refusal to Treat / ethics*
  • Refusal to Treat / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • United States


  • Contraceptives, Postcoital