The Quandary of Catholic Pharmacists

William E. May
© 2010 Culture of Life Foundation.
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

Is It Moral to Sell Contraceptives, Abortifacients?

Feb. 16, 2011 ( Here is a question on bioethics asked by a ZENIT reader and answered by the fellows of the Culture of Life Foundation.

Q: Is it morally permissible to sell something immoral to some one else, for instance, working at a pharmacy and selling Plan B pills and contraceptives? -- D.K., Oxford, Michigan, U.S.A.

William E. May offers the following response:

The question posed is broad. This answer will be limited to the moral obligations of pharmacists to sell contraceptive and abortifacient materials to their customers. We begin with a brief overview of Catholic and pro-life principles on the issue.

In a speech to participants at the 25th International Congress of Catholic Pharmacists at Vatican City on Oct. 29, 2007, Benedict XVI instructed Catholic pharmacists to avoid dispensing drugs with "that are clearly immoral such as, for example, abortion or euthanasia." He declared that conscientious objection is a right that must be recognized by the pharmaceutical profession.[1]

Pharmacists for Life International (PFLI) opposes the dispensing by pharmacists of abortifacient materials. This organization reported in December 2005 that "the vast majority of pharmacists (69%) state that they have a right of conscience in refusing to fill/counsel for drugs which violate their moral, ethical, or religious convictions."

The National Catholic Pharmacists' Guild of the United States (NCPG) pledges to "uphold the principles of the Catholic faith and all laws of church and country, especially those pertaining to the practice of pharmacy; [and to] assist ecclesiastical authorities in the diffusion of Catholic pharmacy ethics."

Cooperation in evil

Since this is an issue involving cooperation in evil, it could help to summarize traditional Catholic principles in this area.

One cooperates in evil if one knowingly and freely gives assistance to the morally evil act of another, who is the principal agent of the evil deed. Cooperation is formal if the cooperator intends the evil act of the principal agent. Formal cooperation is always morally wrong and shares in the evil willed by the agent, e.g., the evil of contraception or abortion.

Cooperation is material if the cooperator does not intend the evil of the principal agent's act. The material cooperator's act can itself be a good act or an indifferent one whose morality is given by the end intended.

Material cooperation is either immediate and mediate. Immediate material cooperation contributes to the essential circumstances while mediate cooperation contributes to the accidental circumstances of the agent's evil act. Catholic tradition has regarded, and still regards, immediate material cooperation in intrinsically evil acts, such as contraception and abortion, as never morally permissible.[2]

I must mention at this point that in "The Way of the Lord Jesus: Difficult Moral Questions" (Franciscan Press, 1997), Germain Grisez believes that the teaching summarized here needs clarification. For those who are interested, he proposes an interpretation of the principles of cooperation in the above-mentioned book.[3]

Abortion potential

Returning to the question at hand, it seems that there is unanimity among Catholic theologians and philosophers that Catholic pharmacists have a strict moral obligation not to dispense abortificients, such as Plan B, that are used to induce an abortion.

Pharmacists may as a result be fired from their jobs with consequent harm to themselves and their families. These bad consequences cannot be used as an excuse for their knowing and willing cooperation in grave evil. Grisez suggests that pharmacists in this situation should try to organize other pharmacists to work for provisions in relevant laws, government regulations, codes of professional ethics to exempt individuals from cooperating in this evil.

With regard to "contraceptive" pills, there is more debate. The pills usually prescribed today have a different chemical composition than the original contraceptive pill. The composition was changed because of serious harms the original pill could cause the user. The current pill ordinarily works by preventing conception, but if it fails to do this, it has the potential to cause an abortion by rendering the mother's womb hostile to an embryo. Although this possibility is remote, it cannot be removed, and anyone who knows that the pill can do this is conditionally willing to commit abortion, i.e., kill the unborn baby.

With regard to these pills that have the potential to induce an abortion, the teaching on cooperation in evil previously summarized -- a summary based on the document published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center -- concludes that pharmacists have the strict obligation here to refuse to dispense them.

Grisez, however, does not reach this conclusion because he believes that it is reasonable to think that the pharmacist's cooperation here is morally permissible material cooperation. His argument is too complex to attempt to reproduce here, but it could be interesting for those facing this situation to consult his reasoning in "Difficult Moral Questions."[4] I would like to add here, to avoid any misunderstanding, that Grisez has been among those who have shown clearly how and why contraception and abortion are intrinsically evil acts. His studies on contraception from 1964 to the present, and on abortion from 1970 to the present, are among the best ever written.


I would conclude, nonetheless, that it is never right to facilitate grave evils such as contraception and abortion by one's own freely chosen acts if doing so is to be complicit to the anti-life culture so dominant today, especially if one has the duty to instruct the ignorant and bear witness to the truth.