Pharmacist’s ‘Conscience’ in Holding Woman’s Birth Control Hostage

Efforts to expand the emerging, nebulous concept of anti-abortion health-care providers’ “right of conscience” were dealt a setback this week, as a Wisconsin appeals court upheld the state Pharmacy Examining Board’s rebuke of Neil Noesen. Noesen, a “traveling pharmacist,” was working temporarily at a Menomonie Kmart when he refused to fill a woman’s prescription for birth control pills—and refused to transfer her prescription elsewhere.

Noesen, 34, of St. Paul, Minn., told regulators that he is a devout Roman Catholic and refused to refill the prescription or release it to another pharmacy because he didn’t want to commit a sin by “impairing the fertility of a human being.”

The Pharmacy Examining Board ruled in 2005 that Noesen failed to carry out his professional responsibility to get the woman’s prescription to someone else if he wouldn’t fill it himself.

The board reprimanded Noesen and ordered him to attend ethics classes. He was allowed to keep his license as long as he informs all future employers in writing that he won’t dispense birth control pills and outlines steps he will take to make sure a patient has access to medication.

Noesen, whose “conscience” about the woman’s “fertility” told him he had to keep the prescription slip away from her, is an extreme case, but the line between respecting the religious observance of health providers and maintaining individuals’ access to health care is being disputed in a variety of cases. Last year we wrote about a “conscience” case where doctors refused to provide artificial insemination to a lesbian. But for the most part, the movement is focused on birth control and abortion.

Last week, a federal court dismissed a lawsuit by the state of California challenging the Weldon Amendment, which denies funds to states that “discriminate” against health services that do not refer patients for abortions, and which Casey Mattox of the Christian Legal Society described as “a critical protection for the rights of conscience of pro-life healthcare workers.”

And the Bush Administration is wading in to the debate: Michael Leavitt, Secretary of Health and Human Services, is leaning on the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology to rescind a report he claimed “would force physicians to violate their conscience by referring patients for abortions or taking other objectionable actions.”