Pharmacist sues over abortion pill

By By Mike Rutledge, Post staff reporter

A pharmacist who was fired because she wouldn't dispense a ''morning-after pill'' to a customer at a Kmart pharmacy in Delhi Township is suing the company.

Pharmacist Karen Brauer of Lawrenceburg, Ind., filed suit Thursday against the Kmart Corp. over her dismissal in 1996. She says she refused to fill the prescription because of her religious beliefs against abortion.

The case, filed in U.S. District Court here, could set a national precedent, and force state pharmacy officials to wrestle with the issue. Ohio law protects people from disciplinary action when they refuse to participate in medical procedures that result in abortion, her suit argues.

Mrs. Brauer, a practicing Catholic who attended St. James Elementary in White Oak and later St. Ursula Academy and Thomas More College, was fired from Kmart's Delhi Road store Dec. 19, 1996, after she declined to refill a prescription for Micronor. She told a customer the pharmacy did not have the green tablets in stock and called the prescription to another store.

Later, the customer learned the Delhi store had the pills.

That was the first time she misrepresented not having a product in stock, Mrs. Brauer said. As a manager at other Kmart stores in Hamilton and Harrison, Ohio, she had chosen not to carry the drug, and would tell customers why. But as a fill-in pharmacist at Delhi, that decision was made by others.

She had an arrangement with another pharmacist that he would handle Micronor prescriptions on days he worked, but was caught by surprise when the refill came in.

''I don't have a problem with working at a community pharmacy that has it on their shelves, but I won't dispense it,'' said Mrs. Brauer, who now fills in at more than one tri-state pharmacy.

Mrs. Brauer, 40, aided by the American Center for Law and Justice, sued the company for wrongful employment termination, based on both state and federal law. The suit was filed by Cincinnati lawyer Thomas Condit, assisting in the case.

''No employer should be permitted to hold an employee's religious beliefs hostage in exchange for keeping their job,'' said Francis J. Manion, senior regional counsel for the ACLJ-Midwest. ''Both federal and state law makes it illegal to fire a person because of their religion.''

Mrs. Brauer's suit states she told Kmart during a pre-employment interview that she had conscientious objections to dispensing ''abortifacient'' drugs, such as Micronor, which she said prevents ovulation only about half the time. Its primary guarantee against pregnancy is in preventing the fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine wall.

Seven days can pass between conception and that implanting, Mrs. Brauer said. She often has filled birth-control prescriptions because they prevent conception, she said.

Mrs. Brauer, who received her master's degree in medicinal chemistry from Purdue University and her bachelor's degree in pharmacy from the University of Cincinnati, is licensed in both Ohio and Indiana.

She was fired after refusing to agree to the statement: ''I, Karen Brauer, agree to fill all Micronor prescriptions and any other legally written or phoned in prescriptions for medications prescribed for under state and federal law regardless of my feelings or beliefs.''

She responded: ''In order to live in accordance with the dictates of my conscience, I must refuse to dispense prescriptions with a major abortifacient mechanism of action. I regret coming into conflict with Kmart over this issue. I have been pleased and happy to deliver pharmaceutical care to Kmart pharmacy customers these past seven years.''

''What do we value more highly - the company's bottom line or their employees' consciences?'' asked Manion, whose organization is a conservative version of the more famous, and liberal, American Civil Liberties Union. The organization, based in Virginia Beach, Va., fights for religious freedom issues, including religious free-speech.

Manion said many pharmacists, like the public at large, ''are not going to have the nerve or guts to go up against this'' at the risk of losing their jobs.

''We reasonably accommodate an employee's religious beliefs,'' said Kmart spokeswoman Mary Lorencz, who said she could not comment on specifics of the case.

''They did not in my case,'' Mrs. Brauer responded. ''They made no effort.''

The company has recently softened its stance since a company spokesman told the Salt Lake City Tribune two years ago Kmart would not tolerate pharmacists unwilling to prescribe morning-after pills, Mrs. Bauer said.

''There are a lot of pharmacists who do not want to be dispensing this. That's their personal convictions,'' said Tim Benedict, assistant executive director of the Ohio State Board of Pharmacy. Laws in Ohio and other states allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense prescriptions based on their professional judgment - but do not mention ''personal convictions,'' he said. ''The board has not taken action in any way, shape or form.''

''This case may be the precedent-setting case across the country,'' he added, noting Ohio pharmacy officials wondered when the first such case would appear. It took Mrs. Brauer a long time to file because she couldn't afford to do so without ACLJ's help.

Mrs. Brauer argues she didn't simply refuse to dispense morning-after pills because of her religious beliefs, but because of her professional ones: ''You don't want to do harm to a patient. A pregnant woman contains two persons.''

She also has refused to carry diet drugs that subsequently have been banned by the Food and Drug Administration: ''I never carried Redux,'' she said.