Pharmacists’ Refusal to Fill Prescriptions for Contraceptives

In a Washington Post article, Rob Stein discusses the trend of some “pharmacists across the country refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control and morning-after pills, saying that dispensing the medications violates their personal moral or religious beliefs” (Stein 1). In some states, this refusal is legal, but in others, state law forces pharmacists to honor the customer’s right to obtain the medication. In states where law forces pharmacists to respect a woman’s right to birth control or morning-after pill her doctor has prescribed, the consequences of refusal to fill the prescription are very grave. According to Stein, “Pharmacists often risk dismissal or other disciplinary action to stand up for their beliefs.” In the most severe cases, pharmacists risk disciplinary action from licensing boards for violating state laws on the issue. Despite these dangers, many pharmacists who believe the use of contraceptives is immoral disobey and not only refuse to fill the prescription, but also refuse to transfer the prescription elsewhere. This is what John Rawls calls an act of civil disobedience: “a public, nonviolent, and conscientious act contrary to law usually done with the intent to bring about a change in the policies or laws of the government” (Rawls).

Though I believe the pharmacists have a right to have a personal belief on the ethics of birth control and the morning-after pill, pharmacists should not have the right to decline filling prescriptions, as this is unfair to others’ moral and ethical beliefs. For an act of civil disobedience to be justified, Rawls says the act must be a last resort, oppose substantial injustice, be fair, and have a good chance of success. Declining to fill a prescription for contraceptives only definitively meets the “last resort” qualification, while arguments could be made for and against this act opposing substantial injustice. Aside from these two qualifications, however, this act of civil disobedience fails to be justified, as it is extremely unfair to prevent a customer’s access to medication for their own personal health. It is an individual’s prerogative to use any drug legal in the United States that is prescribed to them. The user gets to determine the morality and ethics of her decision, not the pharmacist who is simply filling the prescription. Therefore, in the interest of fairness to others’ morals, no pharmacist should have the authority to refuse contraceptives to a customer. The pharmacists’ personal morals and ethics around birth control and the morning-after pill should not play a role. Any such refusal would be a severe infringement on the rights of the customer to use the medication her doctor prescribed. Likewise, pharmacists who disobey laws to fill customers’ prescriptions are preforming an unjustified act of civil disobedience.


Stein, Rob. “Pharmacists’ Rights at Front Of New Debate.” The Washington Post Company 28 Mar. 2005: A01. Print.


7 thoughts on “Pharmacists’ Refusal to Fill Prescriptions for Contraceptives

  1. I think this is a good post about the potential bad consequences of civil disobedience. I think often times people associate good connotations with civil disobedience (possibly because generally it brings up images of the civil rights movement or other worthy causes) however this is a good example of how people in positions of power can not only abuse there power, but can do so with some sort of religious or moral stance that they feel justifies it. This example is similar to preachers who won’t marry interracial couples and other such instances where people let there personal morality trump there notion of law. I think this post shows the danger of incorporating personal moral values into many of these sorts of controversial social issues.

  2. I read this article as well, and I agree that these sort of actions cannot be considered legitimate civil disobedience. The stories Stein told about the married couple and young woman being refused the morning-after pill were horrifying. What is even more horrifying to me is that companies have policies in place that attempt to justify the behavior of the pharmacists who refuse to dispense contraception on moral grounds. I can’t imagine any other sort of situation in which the personal, moral beliefs of a worker would provide them legitimate excuse to refuse to perform their job. Believe what you want, but not at the expense of others’ right to do the same.

  3. This issue is complicated for me. I agree that incorporating personal moral values into situations which directly affect others can be potentially dangerous or at least an infringement on the rights of others. The reality is however, that sometimes civil disobedience disturbs the public, it disturbs a current law or norm, and in the process the rights of others are infringed upon. The question in this case is, whether or not refusing customers the morning-after-pill or contraceptives is a serious harm. Even though there is no physical brutality or violence involved in this form of disobedience of a law, is it truly non-violent?

    • I do not believe that it is non-violent because it can be very detrimental to the individual who needs the medication if the pharmacist will not refill a prescription. I do not think that the pharmacists have a right at all to determine other individuals decisions. As a result, if a person wants to fill a prescription for birth control or the morning after pill, the pharmacist should have no bearing on whether or not they can do so. I find it to definitely be an infringement on the rights of others and I do not think it should vary state to state. If I want to buy birth control for my own self, does that hurt anyone else? Ultimately, I believe it does not and therefore, I think it is wrong for pharmacists to refuse to refill these prescriptions since it has no impact on them.

  4. I also found this post intriguing because I find it difficult to understand why someone with a moral obligation to a medicine would work in a field that requires them to dispense it. In no light does this seem like an act of civil disobedience to me. I equate this to a referee not calling the fowl because he wants his team to win. Both the pharmacist and the referee willingly chose their profession, and for them to refuse to perform their duties is unfair to the people who rely on them.

  5. This is a very interesting post that I really enjoyed reading. I completely agree that the pharmacists have no right to deny someone their prescriptions based on their own beliefs. If they really have a problem with it, their best option would be to quit and find another job. WHen they became a pharmacist they knew the job they were entering into. They determined to fill people’s prescriptions, not pass on their own beliefs instead of those medications.

  6. This is a question that has always interested me as I was educated in a Catholic high school and heard about the issue often. I would have to say that I agree with your conclusion for the most part. I believe that it would be ridiculous for a person attempting to fill their prescription to be completely denied this right simply due to the religious or spiritual beliefs of another person. I do not, however, think it is an issue if the pharmacist does not personally want to fill the prescription. A person’s job should never make them do something they are not morally okay with. As long as the pharmacist does not block their ability to fill the prescription entirely, and allows a fairly simple alternate means of getting the prescription, I do not see an issue with the actions of that pharmacist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s