February 1, 2008

Pharmacists’ conscience clause bill defeated in Senate

By Brigid Curtis Ayer

A bill that would have allowed pharmacists to follow their conscience and refuse to dispense drugs that result in abortion, euthanasia, assisted suicide or mercy killing was defeated in a deadlock vote (24-24) in the Indiana Senate on Jan. 24.

One by one, nearly a dozen senators approached the microphone to voice concerns or explain why they supported or opposed the bill in a floor debate that lasted for more than an hour.

The bill failed for lack of a constitutional majority. To pass, Senate Bill 3, known as the conscience clause bill, needed at least 26 “yes” votes.

Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the Indiana Catholic Conference, said that even though the bill’s primary focus was to give pharmacists the same professional courtesy as other medical professionals in exercising their professional judgment and conscience, the debate on the Senate floor focused on a fear expressed by some senators that pharmacists would be given too much discretionary power. Some senators also feared that some pharmacists might refuse to fill oral contraceptives due to their potential abortifacient nature or they would arbitrarily refuse to fill other drugs they deemed harmful to or possibly misused by a patient.

Sen. Jeff Drozda, (R-Westfield), author of Senate Bill 3, said he authored the bill because several pharmacists had come to him who have been reprimanded or fired because, in following their conscience, they would not dispense drugs which could cause a chemical abortion.

“I find it very troubling that people who are following their conscience are being punished, reprimanded or even fired because of their moral convictions,” Sen. Drozda said.

“I was disappointed that some of my colleagues, who normally support life bills, voted against Senate Bill 3.”

Sen. Marvin Riegsecker (R-Goshen), a pharmacist since 1967, voted for the bill.

He said he supported Senate Bill 3 for two reasons.

“First, it allows the pharmacist to follow his or her conscience in dispensing drugs and, secondly, it protects the pharmacist from being fired for following his or her conscience.

“My philosophy is we need to be respectful of life,” Sen. Riegsecker said. “Pharmacists are one of the most respected and trusted groups of medical professionals.”

Sen. Riegsecker added that he thought some of the comments voiced on the Senate floor during the debate and the concerns raised by those opposing the bill were “overstated” and were “somewhat disrespectful of the pharmacists’ professional judgment.”

Earlier in the day, Sens. Vi Simpson (D-Ellettsville), Sue Errington (D-Muncie), Earline Rogers (D-Gary), Connie Sipes (D-New Albany) and Karen Tallian

(D-Portage) held a news conference to bring attention to the conscience clause bill, and their concern over an attempt to restrict access to health care.

“First, they limited access to information on reproductive health, and now they want to limit access to reproductive health care,” Sen. Tallian said. “This could have been a dangerous step back from 40 years of progress.”

Following the floor debate and tie vote, Sen. Simpson said, “I hope that this debate brings about a renewed awareness of how tentative women’s reproductive rights can be.”

Tebbe, who serves as the official representative of the Catholic Church on public policy matters, testified in support of Senate Bill 3 at a Jan. 9 hearing before the Senate Health and Providers Services Committee.

Tebbe told lawmakers, “The Church believes that pharmacists should be treated in the same manner as other health care professionals, be able to follow their conscience and have the right to reject participating in a moral evil.”

The Senate panel approved Senate Bill 3 in a 6-5 vote.

Sen. Drozda said that representatives from St. Vincent Hospital, St. Francis Hospital and the Hospital Association had expressed concerns from a hospice perspective that Senate Bill 3 might prevent some patients from receiving pain medication.

Sen. Drozda amended the bill to require pharmacists to contact the prescribing physician to clarify the clinical condition of the patient before refusing to fill a prescription or dispense a medical device.

This provision would protect hospice patients and patients needing high doses of pain medication. The amendment also provided that the pharmacy where the pharmacist is employed have a policy in place to dispense or sell the drug.

Referring to a publication of Americans United for Life called “Defending Life 2007: Proven Strategies for a Pro-life America,” Sen. Drozda said that five states have enacted a pharmacist conscience clause law, including Arkansas, California, Kansas, Maine and South Dakota.

Thirty-four states have general provisions allowing medical professionals and medical institutions to refuse treatment or procedures which would violate ethical standards of the individual or institution.

This is the fourth time that the Indiana General Assembly has considered a conscience clause bill for pharmacists, but Sen. Drozda said that it is the first year the bill has passed out of committee and been voted on by the full Senate.

Under Senate rules, as author of the bill, Sen. Drozda can call the bill down for another vote with no debate.

He said he just needs to get two more “yes” votes for the bill to pass.

(Brigid Curtis Ayer is a correspondent for The Criterion.)

Local site Links: