VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI urged Catholic pharmacists on Monday to use conscientious objection to avoid dispensing drugs with "immoral purposes such as, for example, abortion or euthanasia."
In a speech to participants at the 25th International Congress of Catholic Pharmacists, Benedict said that conscientious objection was a right that must be recognized by the pharmaceutical profession.
Such objector status, he said, would "enable them not to collaborate directly or indirectly in supplying products that have clearly immoral purposes such as, for example, abortion or euthanasia."
In his speech, the pope also said that pharmacists have an educational role toward patients so that drugs are used in a morally and ethically correct way.
"We cannot anesthetize consciences as regards, for example, the effect of certain molecules that have the goal of preventing the implantation of the embryo or shortening a person's life," he said.
Emergency contraception pills, which can be taken up to 72 hours after unprotected sex, work by preventing ovulation or by preventing the embryo from being implanted into the womb.
The pope said pharmacists should raise people's awareness so that "all human beings are protected from conception to natural death, and so that medicines truly play a therapeutic role."
The issue has been debated extensively in the United States.
Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich introduced the rule more than two years ago requiring pharmacists to fill all prescriptions. Pharmacists challenged the rule, and a legal settlement earlier this month allowed pharmacists who object to dispensing emergency birth control to step aside while someone else fills the prescription.
In Washington state, pharmacists have filed a federal lawsuit over a regulation requiring them to sell emergency contraception, saying it violates their civil rights by forcing them into choosing between "their livelihoods and their deeply held religious and moral beliefs."
A few states in the U.S. have passed laws that specifically allow pharmacists or pharmacies to refuse to provide health care due to religious or moral objections, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights think tank based in New York.
Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and South Dakota have legislation that explicitly permits pharmacists to refuse to dispense contraceptives, according to the Institute, and Florida, Illinois, Maine and Tennessee have broadly worded legislation that may apply to pharmacists.
In California, on the other hand, pharmacists are required to fill all valid prescriptions and can only refuse with employer approval and if the customer can still access the prescription in a timely manner.
In Britain, the Royal Pharmaceutical Society has a code of ethics allowing pharmacists who have religious objections to refuse dispensing certain drugs, such as emergency contraception. But their objection must be stated to their employer before they start working, and they must refer patients to other pharmacists who can provide the requested drugs.