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Va. pharmacy follows faith, no birth control sales

Posted 10/21/08 - A new drug store at a Virginia strip mall is putting its faith in an unconventional business plan: No candy. No sodas. And no birth control. Divine Mercy Care Pharmacy is among at least seven pharmacies across the nation that are refusing as a matter of faith to sell contraceptives of any kind, even if a person has a prescription.

States across the country have been wrestling with the issue of pharmacists who refuse on religious grounds to dispense birth control or morning-after pills, and some have enacted laws requiring drug stores to fill the prescriptions.

In Virginia, though, pharmacists can turn away any prescription for any reason.

"I am grateful to be able to practice," pharmacy manager Robert Semler said, "where my conscience will never be violated and my faith does not have to be checked at the door each morning."

Semler ran a similar pharmacy before opening the new store, which is not far from Dulles International Airport. The store only sells items that are health-related, including vitamins, skin care products and over-the-counter medications.

On Tuesday, the pharmacy celebrated a blessing from Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde. While Divine Mercy Care is not affiliated with the Roman Catholic Church, it is guided by church teachings on sexuality, which forbid any form of artificial contraception, including morning-after pills, condoms and birth control pills, a common prescription used by millions of women in the U.S.

"This pharmacy is a vibrant example of our Holy Father's charge to all of us to wear our faith in the public square," said Loverde, who sprinkled holy water on the shelves stocked with painkillers and acne treatments. "It will allow families to shop in an environment where their faith is not compromised."

The drug store is the seventh in the country to be certified as not prescribing birth control by Pharmacists for Life International. The anti-abortion group estimates that perhaps hundreds of other pharmacies have similar policies, though they have not been certified.

Earlier this year in Wisconsin, a state appeals court upheld sanctions against a pharmacist who refused to dispense birth control pills to a woman and wouldn't transfer her prescription elsewhere. Elsewhere, at least seven states require pharmacies or pharmacists to fill contraceptive prescriptions, according to the National Women's Law Center. Four states explicitly give pharmacists the right to turn away any prescriptions, the group said.

The Virginia store's policy has drawn scorn from some abortion rights groups, who have already called for a boycott and collected more than 1,000 signatures protesting the pharmacy.

"If this emboldens other pharmacies in other parts of the state, it could really affect low-income and rural women in terms of access," said Tarina Keene, executive director of the Virginia chapter of the National Abortion Rights Action League.

Robert Laird, executive director of Divine Mercy Care, believes many of the estimated 50,000 Catholics within a few miles of the store will support its mission and make up for the roughly 10 percent of business that contraceptives represent in a typical pharmacy.

Whether Catholics will be drawn to the pharmacy is uncertain. According to a Gallup poll published last year for an extensive study of U.S. Catholicism called American Catholics Today, 75 percent of U.S. Catholics said you can still be a good Catholic even if you don't obey church teachings on birth control.

Catherine Muskett said she plans to shop at the drug store even though she lives more than 20 miles away.

"Obviously it's good to support pro-life causes. Every little bit counts," said Muskett, one of about 75 people who crowded into the tiny shop for Tuesday's ceremony.


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