Goliad pharmacy moves over morning-after pill dispute

Kristy von Dohlen manages Goliad Pharmacy & Gifts - the only pharmacy in Goliad County -- from a desk the size of a TV tray.

Behind her, boxes of merchandise are stacked almost to the ceiling.

"We have to move stuff, arrange it, move it, store it - I'm just praying it doesn't fall," von Dohlen said. "We are working out of boxes; it is a tiny bit stressful."

The rushed move from where the 142-year-old pharmacy once stood on Courthouse Square to a smaller building a few doors down arose from a modern-day controversy over a little white pill.

Gary Patrick, majority shareholder of the pharmacy, and Tim Von Dohlen, minority shareholder and owner of the building that accommodated the pharmacy, could not resolve their differences on Plan B One-Step, also known as the morning-after pill.

When the pair came together in May to negotiate the terms of a new lease, which was set to expire in November, Von Dohlen said he could not renew the agreement if the pharmacy continued to sell Plan B.

Patrick said he could not accept those terms.

"That was well out of my comfort range that I would go for something like that," Patrick said. "So I said, 'If that's the case, I'm going to move.'"

Von Dohlen, founder of the Pope John Paul II Life Center and a Catholic, said he could not in good conscience allow the drug to be sold, which is why he did not renew the lease.

"I am not trying to create a controversy with the Goliad Pharmacy. It is just that they decided they wanted to sell something I couldn't allow on my property," he said.

Plan B One-Step is classified as an emergency contraceptive by the Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association.

The same drug, however, is labeled something different by the Catholic Medical Association -- an abortifacient, or abortion-causing pill.

When used before ovulation, the pill is designed as a high dose of birth control to stop the egg from leaving the uterus or the sperm from joining with the egg up to 72 hours after unprotected sex. When used after ovulation, the pill may keep a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus.

And because the Catholic church teaches that life starts at fertilization, the pill therefore has the potential to act as an abortifacient, said Dr. John Brehany, executive director of the CMA.

"A drug that interferes with the life or even the ability of the human development of that embryo, that would end that human life directly," Brehany said.

Von Dohlen said that because the pill has the potential to stop implantation, he believes the pill is an abortifacient.

"I respect others' right to believe, but I try not to walk away from what I believe in," he said. "I certainly try to respect each person and do what is fair and equitable with them."

Patrick, however, said the decision to take the FDA-approved drug should be the patient's -- not the pharmacist's.

Plan B was made a nonprescription drug for women 18 and older, according to a release from the FDA, because experts agreed the drug was "safe and effective."

"It is just freedom of choice," Patrick said. "You don't have to like it. Is it illegal? Is it immoral? No. No. So, that is what we are going to do -- this is the right thing to do."

But Von Dohlen is not alone in his convictions, as pharmacies across the country and the Crossroads are dealing with the ethical dilemma.

Whether pharmacists can refuse to sell the morning-after pill has already been decided in Washington state, with the state supreme court ruling that pharmacists have the right to choose which drugs they want to make available.

Kelli Schley, manager and partner of the Yoakum Discount Pharmacy, said she does not provide the medication. Schley said, as a pharmacist, she has an obligation not only to her convictions but also to the community.

"We are here to help people, so we should have the discretion to say yes or no on what we think is good for a patient versus something that could possibly harm them," Schley said.

Michael Ward, owner of Castle Hills Pharmacy in Victoria, said he also does not stock the morning-after pill.

"In some instances, it actually prevents the attachment of the egg to the uterus. You can paint it all kinds of colors, but it is an abortifacient," Ward said.

Both Schley and Ward said the morning-after pill is the only drug they have refused to sell on moral grounds.

Carolyn Hilscher, a pharmacist for almost 30 years and owner of the Shiner Family Pharmacy for almost 20 years, said this is the only drug she has seen cause this kind of divide in the pharmaceutical world.

Hilscher said that because the FDA classifies the drug as an emergency contraceptive, so does she.

"I personally feel like I will stock whatever my clientele wants, and I am not going to deny something that they are looking for if it is in the realm of my practice," Hilscher said.

Patrick, a pharmacist for 47 years, said it is especially vital for pharmacies to provide those options in a small community like Goliad.

"We have no business telling them what we want. We can't say, 'Well, go next door.' They would have to go to Victoria, and a lot of people don't, or can't, go to Victoria," Patrick said. "It is not right for them to be dependent on a town 30 miles away."

Alisia Garcia, of Goliad, is glad the dispute didn't force the pharmacy to close.

"I'm a heart patient, and I need my medication," Garcia said. "I take 17 pills a day, so I'm constantly getting refills."

Garcia said she and many others do not have reliable transportation to get to Victoria and that is one reason the disagreement should never have been an issue.

"Everyone has the right to do their own thing," she said. "It is your beliefs and not anyone else's. You believe your religion to do what you want or not."

Although she is glad the pharmacy is still open, Garcia said, she is saddened by the decrease in size, going from about 4,000 square feet to 2,500.

"It is small. It is very crowded, but the people treat you the same and that is what matters," Garcia said.

Linda Lawrence, who comes to Goliad often because of family, said she has been frequenting Goliad Pharmacy & Gifts for years.

Though she does not believe in the use of Plan B, Lawrence said she will not stop shopping at the store in protest, either.

She said she supports both Von Dohlen's right to private property and Patrick's right to move the business.

"I think if it is your principles, and you have to stand up for that. ... That is what America is all about, saying you are for it or not for it and not being persecuted either way," said Lawrence.