Pharmacists Find Challenges and Rewards for Taking a Pro-Life Stand

Not selling contraceptives is the conviction of pro-life pharmacists the Register recently interviewed.

Co-owner Carmen Cartaya (center, wearing mask) works alongside two employees of David’s Pharmacy in Tampa, Florida. The pharmacy does not dispense contraceptives.
Co-owner Carmen Cartaya (center, wearing mask) works alongside two employees of David’s Pharmacy in Tampa, Florida. The pharmacy does not dispense contraceptives. (photo: Courtesy of Carmen Cartaya)

When pharmacist Pat McNerney quit his job at an Arizona pharmacy in 2004 because he no longer felt he could dispense birth-control pills, the decision upended his family’s comfortable life. 

But when everything settled, they were living out their pro-life Catholic convictions at their own independent pharmacy by not selling contraceptives. 

“I ended up moving and selling my house, leaving my job and taking a job in a niche pharmacy making [intravenous] solutions for people at home so I didn’t have to worry about [dispensing birth control] at all,” said McNerney about his transition to opening Ave Maria Pharmacy in Prescott, Arizona, in 2008.  “Once you decide you’re going to follow God’s plan, he starts putting things in place for you.”

Pharmacists and pharmacy owners such as McNerney, who object to dispensing and selling birth-control pills and/or other contraceptives, take a very visible stand usually for moral or religious reasons and can face scrutiny from patients, the community and sometimes state leaders. 

Some interviewed for this article said deeper conversion in their Catholic faith helped them recognize that one mechanism of modern birth-control pills can cause these drugs to function as abortifacients, destroying human embryos. And despite a long legal fight, another Christian family still refuses to comply with a state law requiring pharmacies to carry the emergency contraception, sometimes called the “morning after” pill. 

Eight states require pharmacists to provide medication regardless of whether they have religious or moral objections, according to NBC News, which also reported that six states have enacted laws or regulations giving pharmacists the right to refuse to dispense medication for religious or moral reasons, while six more allow them to refuse if they refer patients elsewhere.

After McNerney had an awakening in his Catholic faith, he corresponded with one of the contributors to the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, which presents Church teaching on birth control, and became convinced he should stop dispensing it. He conversed with Germaine Grisez, the French-American philosopher who wrote a book in 1964 called Contraception and the Natural Law.

McNerney donates 1% of sales to pro-life charities — and has lost patients as a result. But he has gained pro-life patients.  

Local doctors have come to view the pro-life pharmacy as fair, and sometimes ask McNerney to work with patients who have difficulty paying. “They realize that if I’m willing to take a stand on [birth control], they trust me in other things, as well,” he explained.


Small Print, Large Truth

After Huan Hoang’s faith conversion 14 years ago, he wasn’t afraid to tell patients at the Wisconsin chain pharmacy where he worked about the effects of birth-control pills. 

“I did the best I could,” said Hoang, who worked in Madison and later at the chain’s pharmacies around the state until early 2019.  “I educated my patients on how the pill worked. I highlighted the package insert.” 

Hoang said when he read birth-control pill packaging describing the drug’s mechanisms of action, he discovered one of the mechanisms reduces the uterine wall lining, which can prevent embryo implantation, making the drug a possible abortifacient. 

Hoang left his job at the pharmacy chain in part because, along with dispensing birth control, he was concerned about dispensing transgender hormone treatment and medication for erectile disfunction. 

“I saw more rapid fire of what was going on in the field,” said Hoang, who has since tried unsuccessfully to open a pharmacy that reflects his Catholic faith. Wisconsin is one of the states that by law requires pharmacies to dispense contraception. 

Like Hoang, Michael Koelzer felt compelled to stop dispensing birth control after reading about the abortifacient mechanism in 1995. Now the owner of Kay Pharmacy and Home Medical Equipment in Grand Rapids, Michigan, he continued dispensing it for about seven years because his father, then the primary owner, disagreed with him. 

After receiving a call from the Lord, Koelzer told his father he would no longer dispense contraceptives. “It was hard for me because I always went to him for all the best advice,” he said. “Now, finally, this was one of the hardest decisions I had, and it was hard to talk to him about it.” 

Finally, Koelzer’s father agreed to stop dispensing contraceptives and later retired. 

Birth control had accounted for 5% of the pharmacy’s business. “It wasn’t fun thinking about [the loss], but after you feel like you’ve got God riding your back for five years, everything else is kind of easy after that,” he said. 

Michael Koelzer, owner of Kay Pharmacy in Grand Rapids, Michigan, stopped dispensing contraceptives for moral reasons.(Photo: Courtesy of Michael Koelzer)

Koelzer estimates 5% of women taking birth-control pills use them for therapeutic reasons, such as regulating their menstrual cycle. Reluctance to judge patients’ reasons for taking the drug factored into his decision to discontinue it altogether. 


Under Pressure

Carmen Cartaya, with her husband, David, have owned David’s Pharmacy in Tampa, Florida, since 1975.

The Cartayas stopped dispensing birth-control pills in the early ’80s when drug companies introduced a pill that contains an abortifacient mechanism, Carmen said. 

“When it was told to us that the formula had changed and that it was an abortifacient, we pulled it off the shelf,” Carmen said, adding that the pharmacy doesn’t carry other types of contraceptives. 

A drug salesman told the Cartayas they would lose all their patients, but after the first year, the business has continued to do well, David said.

When Kevin Stormans and his family of Olympia, Washington, decided they couldn’t comply with a 2007 Washington regulation requiring pharmacies to stock and dispense the “morning after” pill at Ralph’s Thriftway pharmacy, they faced considerable opposition, including a lawsuit. 

“They really focused on us because we’re small and independent,” said Stormans, president of Stormans Inc., owners of the pharmacy for the last 30 years. “We’re a little family-owned business, and they wanted to make a statement and crush us so they can make a statement.” 

The Supreme Court declined to hear the case in 2016, and since then, the pharmacy still doesn’t carry the drugs and hasn’t had any problems, said Stormans, who is not a pharmacist. 

God continues to provide for the family. “Looking back, he said, “God leads us in a certain way and uses us for certain things, and I think it’s clear through this process that he used us to make an impact in some people somehow through this process.” 


Deadly Cornucopia

Contraceptives aren’t the only drugs giving some pharmacists moral qualms.

Koelzer doesn’t dispense drugs specifically for assisted suicide, but other drugs he carries may be used for that purpose, so he tries not to dispense drugs whose mechanism of action is deadly. 

Assisted suicide isn’t legal in Arizona, but McNerney said he can see it becoming a possibility in the state, and he won’t dispense the drugs. 

“I didn’t go to school to learn how to kill people,” McNerney said. “I won’t give out prescriptions to people I think are going to kill themselves or kill their babies.”

He added that he’s refused to fill prescriptions for transgender hormone treatments.  

Despite the challenges of maintaining a pro-life stance at the pharmacy, Cartaya said God continues to help. 

"We are at a point where we don’t care what anybody thinks. We just stand here firm and we say, ‘No,’” she said. “If you come to me and you want an explanation why I don’t sell [contraceptives], I will, with all the love in my heart, explain to you why. If you don’t want an explanation and think that I’m crazy, go ahead and think that I’m crazy. I just know that I’m going to die someday and I’m going to face God.”