Target fires pharmacist over beliefs
By Allen Palmeri
February 7, 2006
ST. CHARLES – Heather Williams, a member of First Baptist Church, Harvester, is surprised to be caught in the middle of a legislative debate over the rights of pharmacists. After all, she is a 39-year-old mother of three children who only works part-time.
“God just uses the most unlikely person,” she said. “I feel like I’m not an eloquent speaker and all the things that you would think in human terms you would want to be to really show your passion for your view.”
Williams has been a pharmacist for 16 years. Her last five years have been with Target, but on Dec. 21, she was fired for refusing to participate in a process that started in mid-October and led to an eventual violation of her conscience.
Target was pressured by abortion provider Planned Parenthood, Williams said, leading to a sequence of events that resulted in her being let go for refusing to be a participant in the filling of the Plan B morning-after pill that results in an abortion.
“Before this, Target had been really good to me,” Williams said. “My direct boss had nothing to do with my firing. The person who actually fired me, the district manager, said it pained her to do it, but if the legislation that she knew was pending in Jefferson City was in effect, she would not have had to fire me.”
After a previous incident at another Target store in the St. Louis metro area, a memo detailing the chain’s new policy on Plan B was distributed throughout all Target stores by the end of October which led to a contract that all Target pharmacists had to sign. Planned Parenthood has a heightened national campaign to persuade major pharmacy chains to agree to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Williams needed to go, according to Paula Gianino, chief executive of Planned Parenthood for the St. Louis Region, because “she took it to the next level” by refusing to fill a prescription and refusing to help someone else fill the prescription, the Post-Dispatch reported.
“If we were not going to fill it, we had to sign a contract saying we would transfer it to another pharmacy and we had to make sure that pharmacy had it in stock, that there was a pharmacist there that was willing to fill it, and even to give directions to the store if necessary,” Williams said.
Williams, who with her lawyer has filed a complaint against Target with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, said she never was given the option of refusing to fill the Plan B prescription in the incident that led to her firing.
“My store did not even carry the drug,” she said. “The whole debate is just over the contract.”
It all comes down to two points of view, she said. One side believes that life begins at inception (a beginning, or origin) and that life needs to be protected at that tiny juncture. The other side believes that life begins when cells attach to the uterus and that the Plan B pill works totally apart from the process of abortion.
“Just as you have your right to get it filled, I want my right not to fill it,” Williams said.
Gov. Matt Blunt wants to encourage Williams and other pharmacists with conscience objections to keep on working in accordance with their religious beliefs. That is why he wants lawmakers to pass a bill that would protect the integrity of pharmacists. On Feb. 13, Williams is scheduled to testify during a committee meeting at the State Capitol on behalf of that legislation.
“Heather was not at all looking for controversy, but when this issue dropped in her lap, she felt compelled by her conscience and her understanding of biblical truth to respond the way she did,” said her pastor, David McAlpin.
“I just admire her courage. I admire her willingness to stand by her convictions, even if it cost her job. She’s stood up very well under the pressure.”
McAlpin said Williams has a powerful friend in House Speaker Pro Tem Carl Bearden, R-St. Charles, who happens to be a member of First Harvester. The pastor is advising people to write or call their lawmakers in support of putting some type of pharmacy conscience protection into Missouri law. Thus far in the Missouri General Assembly, companion bills that would appear to be Republican-majority approved have emerged—House Bill 1539 sponsored by Rep. Bryan Stevenson, R-Webb City, and Senate Bill 609 sponsored by Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau.
“I certainly think she was discriminated against,” McAlpin said. “I think she has been marginalized by an industry that was surprised that there was someone out there who actually would act upon her conscience.”
Living with the threat of losing one’s job for not filling a Plan B prescription is a grim reality for many pharmacists in Missouri, said Paul Vossen, store manager of Whaley’s East End Drug in Jefferson City and a member of Concord Baptist Church. Vossen, who has been practicing pharmacy for 30 years, is not in jeopardy of offending the owner in his current position, but he has thought through the plight of his fellow Christian pharmacists who are employed by the larger chain stores.
“If it costs me my job, so be it,” Vossen said, describing the thought process that became a stark reality for Williams. “I’ll go work in the tool department at Lowe’s.”