Stance on 'morning-after' pill costs pharmacist her job
By Jo Mannies
POST-DISPATCH POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT
Pharmacist Heather Williams believes there's no middle ground when it comes to the so-called "morning-after" pill known as Plan B.
Williams opposes use of that pill, or any other emergency contraception, because they can prevent a fertilized human egg from implanting in the uterus. "For me, life begins with two cells," Williams said Thursday.
As a part-time pharmacist at a Target store in St. Charles, Williams had refused to fill such prescriptions without incident for the past five years. But she also declined to refer physicians or patients to others who would fill such prescriptions.
"I just can't be a link in the chain at all," she said.
As of Jan. 1, that stance cost Williams her job.
She and her lawyer, Ed Martin, filed a complaint this week against Target with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A suit also is being considered.
Target declined to comment Thursday. But Williams stressed that she blamed Planned Parenthood – not Target – for her predicament. She cites Planned Parenthood's heightened national campaign to persuade major pharmacy chains such as Target to agree to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception.
Paula Gianino, chief executive of Planned Parenthood for the St. Louis Region, lauds Target's commitment to fill such prescriptions and contends that Williams is at fault because of her refusal to refer patients or physicians elsewhere.
"She could refuse to fill the prescription, but she took it to the next level," Gianino said. "Target has done everything possible to try to fill patients' health care needs and accommodate individual pharmacists."
She noted that Plan B won't affect an established pregnancy.
Said Williams: "I'm not in judgment of anyone. I want my right not to fill something, much as they have their right to get Plan B filled."
That debate is expected to get hotter in the coming weeks.
Williams and Martin are appearing on national and local TV to make their case that pharmacists are being unfairly targeted in the national battle over Plan B.
Meanwhile, Martin is part of a legal team planning to file suit today, in Madison County, on behalf of four pharmacists who lost their jobs with Walgreens on similar grounds.
Martin has publicly debated Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who has issued an executive order requiring all pharmacies in Illinois that carry birth control pills to also fill prescriptions for Plan B.
Back in Missouri, Williams plans to testify soon before a legislative panel considering a bill to give legal protection to pharmacists who decline to fill a prescription for Plan B or any other drug they believe could cause an abortion. Gov. Matt Blunt says such legislation is among his top priorities.
Williams, 39, the mother of three, said she thought she already had such protection in Missouri when Target officials asked her late last year to sign a "conscience clause policy."
The matter became an issue among Target pharmacists locally, she said, after last fall's publicity over an incident at a Target in Fenton, where a pharmacist refused to fill a Plan B prescription.
Soon after, Target required its pharmacists to sign a "conscience policy" – in which they agreed to fill or refer such prescriptions.
Williams balked because of the referral requirement. In her refusal letter to Target, dated Dec. 1, Williams explained, "I would be required to do almost everything except count the pills."
On Dec. 21, she said, Target's district pharmacy officials reluctantly told her that her refusal to sign was forcing them to let her go.
The irony, said Williams, was that the St. Charles store didn't stock Plan B and wasn't required to have it on hand.
But with the new policy, she said, all Target pharmacists – regardless of their religious views – were required to help patients or physicians seeking Plan B by locating another Target store where Plan B could be found.
"We had to make sure it was in stock, and even give directions to the store," Williams said. "I would be a participant."