When third-generation pharmacist Mike Koelzer learned from a cousin that birth-control pills had an abortifacient mechanism, he was torn between two fathers. On the one hand, the 20-something nominal Catholic was confident that his dad, the owner of Kay Pharmacy in Grand Rapids, Mich., knew what he was doing. In his eyes, Dad certainly had all the answers when it came to the family business. On the other hand, he sensed that this wasn’t right in the eyes of the Church and wanted to honor his heavenly Father.
"So I went to my dad to talk to him; and he said, ‘No, I do not think this is a good idea (to stop selling birth control).’"
That was the beginning of a five-year inner struggle for Koelzer as he tried to discern what God was asking of him as a pharmacist.
"I prayed to be truly open to God’s call. Each day I would wake up and say, ‘God, I will do what you want me to do; I am just not sure what that is.’ In other words, if God would have chosen to speak to me where I could have physically heard him, I would have loved that. It would have taken the problem off of my hands knowing that I had God’s answer," he recalled.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that birth control is "intrinsically evil" (2370) and "morally unacceptable" (2399).
It adds, "It is necessary that each and every marriage act remain ordered per se to the procreation of human life" (2366).
In 2002, as Koelzer took on more and more of an ownership role in the family pharmacy, he made the decision that Kay Pharmacy would no longer carry birth control.
"When I told my dad about this, he said that, while he did not agree with my position, he supported me — in that that was my decision to make now as owner."
Some 10 years later, the father of 10 says he has no regrets. But that doesn’t mean it has always been easy.
"I have some days in which I am angry with God and tell him that things would be a lot easier if I could just carry every product," Koelzer told the Register. "When you lose someone’s birth-control prescription, you normally also lose every other prescription for them and their family because it is typically moms who are making the choice of what pharmacy to go to."
Koelzer explained that his struggle to stand up for his religious convictions has been more of a personal struggle than a public one. However, he is familiar with pharmacists who have been the subject of smear campaigns, brought before review boards and even fired over standing up for their pro-life beliefs.
In his 15-plus years as senior counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice, Frank Manion estimates that he has handled around 40-50 pharmacist cases. One of his first cases was that of Karen Brauer. In 1996, while working as a pharmacist at a Cincinnati-area Kmart, Brauer refused to dispense a birth-control prescription. There was a complaint made against her, and Brauer was fired. This took place despite the fact that the lifelong Catholic had explained her opposition to certain birth-control pills upon being hired.
"We sued for unlawful termination and settled," explained Manion. "Karen’s victory laid the ground work, so to speak, for the other pharmacists to come forward with their workplace complaints. She took a stand. We began to regularly hear from pharmacists who had a similar story. These pharmacists would be upfront with their employers about what they could not do and were hired only to have some incident come up where they would then be brought before some administrative board or asked to sign something or even be fired."
Brauer is president of Pharmacists for Life International (PFLI.org). Since 1984, the organization’s mission has been to return pharmacy back to the healing profession it was intended to be. According to Brauer, the group is mainly an online organization these days and serves as an information resource center for health professionals concerned about life issues. Their motto is simple: "Let the gift of medicines promote life, not destroy life."
In West Wendover, Nev., member Michael Katsonis has taken the group’s motto to heart even when the going gets tough. In his more than 40 years as a pharmacist, his pro-life position has caused him to be asked to leave several pharmacy positions. This occurred just a year ago, when he was asked to resign at a Nevada pharmacy. Since then, he has been unable to find employment in his field despite the fact that he has an active pharmacy license in three states.
"I believe life begins at conception," Katsonis told the Register. "This is a grace from God. As well, I have always practiced according to the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm."
"When these things happen, my faith in God has been strengthened," he added. "I live in a world of spiritual peace. I reject the cesspool of secular society and pray for all the souls who choose unwisely or just do not know they have a choice."
More Support Needed
Both Katsonis and Brauer didn’t know exactly how their pro-life views would impact them when they entered the pharmacy field.
"Before I began practicing as a pharmacist, I knew I could possibly run into trouble for refusing to dispense certain drugs," said Brauer.
"I became a pharmacist because I was very interested in chemistry as a young man, and I also had a natural entrepreneurial spirit. I had no idea my beliefs would cause such an uproar," explained Katsonis.
Brauer related that she often feels like an outsider when it comes to defending life within the health-care field.
As for any future pharmacist who looks to practice in a pro-life manner, Brauer related that the stakes are much higher these days due to the current administration.
"Pharmacists who want to go all pro-life will run into conflict with the requirements of Obamacare," noted Brauer. "The easiest path for pharmacists who do not want to dispense any hormonal birth control at all is to stay out of retail and move into clinical or specialty pharmacy practice."
Eddie O’Neill writes from
New Castle, Colorado.