By Hilary White

MADISON, Wisconsin, April 9, 2008 ( – The Wisconsin appeals court has upheld the sanctions against a Catholic pharmacist who refused to dispense contraceptive drugs on the grounds of religious conscience. On March 25, 3rd District Court Judge Michael Hoover ruled in favour of the decision of the Wisconsin Pharmacy Examining Board to reprimand Neil Noesen and place limits on his license.

Neil Noesen, a believing Catholic, was working as a substitute pharmacist at a K-mart department store in Menomonie, Wisconsin in the summer of 2002, when a young college student asked him to re-fill a prescription for hormonal contraceptives. Noesen refused to fill the prescription for the abortifacient drug or refer to another pharmacist who would comply with the request. When the woman took her prescription to a Wal-Mart pharmacist, Noesen refused to provide the Wal-Mart pharmacist with the prescription information.

The woman lodged a complaint and the Pharmacy Examining Board found Noesen had “engaged in practice which constitutes a danger to the health, welfare, or safety of a patient” and had “practiced in a manner which substantially departs from the standard of care ordinarily exercised by pharmacists and which harmed or could have harmed a patient.”

Noesen argued that the Wisconsin state constitution protected his right to abstain from “impairing the fertility of a human being” which he believes is objectively evil.

Judge Hoover disagreed, ruling that Noesen “prevented all the efforts [the woman] made to obtain her medication elsewhere when he refused to complete the transfer.”

“The board could therefore properly conclude that he violated a standard of care applicable to pharmacists.”

Noesen’s lawyer said he would appeal the decision to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.

Kim Wadas, the associate director for education and health care for the Wisconsin Catholic Bishops’ conference told the diocesan newspaper of the La Crosse Diocese that the ruling is “a step in the right direction”.

“We were excited to see some of that language, which continued to recognize that pharmacists have a right of conscience,” Wadas said. “This is something we advocate for on behalf of health professionals, especially Catholic health professionals.” The same Kim Wadas also gave testimony to a Wisconsin Senate Committee on the moral liceity of directly abortifacient drugs, saying, “Catholic hospitals in Wisconsin can and do treat [rape] victims with emergency contraception.”

Contrary to Wadas’ supportive reaction to the decision against Noesen, however, the court rulings found that the protection of conscience does not extend to the absolute refusal to participate in the dispensing of abortifacient drugs, an act understood by Catholics to be an objectively evil one.

An administrative law judge upheld the Pharmacy Board’s judgement, noting that the state pharmacy licensing regulations only allows conscientious objection if the pharmacist is willing to “ensure that there is an alternative mechanism for the patient to receive his or her medication, including informing the patient of their options to obtain their prescription.” Catholic ethicists, however, hold that this constitutes “material co-operation in an objective evil”.

In agreement with Wadas, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, an anti-Christian organisation, also saw the ruling as a positive and important step, but specifically as one toward greater suppression of conscience rights of religious people. 

Lauren Smith wrote on the group’s website, “It’s difficult to understate this ruling’s importance. Pharmacist refusals are increasingly problematic, and Noesen is one of the first rulings weighing the states’ authority to protect public welfare against an individual’s alleged freedom of conscience.”

Given such rulings, Catholics in the health care professions are increasingly wondering whether they will be able to continue to participate in their fields at all, given the medical establishment’s blanket acceptance, backed up by the courts, of contraception as ‘medication’, as well as abortion and increasingly of euthanasia.

Read related coverage:

US Catholic Bishops in Wisconsin and Connecticut Drop Opposition to Abortion-Causing Emergency Contraception