Management Media Politics

Oil, water and the pharmacy

Yesterday, I pulled a quote out of a classic pharmacy / contraceptive / faith story in the Great Falls Tribune because a quote about using morals to make business decisions seemed odd to me.

There’s another hair in this story’s soup: The rights of the businesses to do business as the owners see fit – within the law.

The owners of the pharmacy say they stopped the sale of oral contraceptives because their use is not consistent with their faith.

I don’t think they need a reason, nor do they need to explain it to anyone.

Bringing their faith into it and making a public announcement of the decision made them a lightning rod for comment (and a little publicity), but it’s their business, they made the investment, they have to live with their decision financially, so what business is it of ours? If people don’t agree, they can simply vote with our feet. It’s just like changing the channel on the TV.

What if they had said “It’s a very low volume product and we don’t make much money selling them, so we are dropping that product line.” ?

What if they had said that they had a feud with the vendor and decided to drop all products from that vendor?

What if they took on a very profitable, high volume new product and simply ran out of storage/dispensary space, so something else had to go?

Jill Baker, education director of Planned Parenthood of Montana was quoted by the GF Tribune as saying the pharmacy’s decision to cease the sale of oral contraceptives “denies women access to basic health care“.

This generates lots of questions that the Libertarian slice of me (I’ve got lots of slices) finds interesting.

Some examples:

  • Planned Parenthood provides those same health care services – as do other pharmacies and clinics in the Great Falls area. In my mind, to deny women access to basic health care would involve removing ALL access to those services and products, not just one source of them.
  • I suppose if they were the only pharmacy in town (Montana is mostly rural, obviously), the “denies women access” argument might hold a little bit of water – yet there are other doctors and clinics who can prescribe and there are mail order pharmacies. Still, if you are the only one in town, is it restraint of trade to force you to carry such goods?
  • What if cigarettes and alcohol are incongruent with your faith and you own a convenience store? Who gets upset with you?
  • What if you simply seem to always be “out of stock” on that item? Wonder if anyone would notice?
  • Speaking from a business perspective, is the pharmacy legally obligated to sell every available prescription drug, regardless of the economics of the drug or what it treats? Some would say that because their license to distribute scheduled drugs is issued by the state and the Feds, that their sales should be subject to every possible discrimination statute, or that they should not be able to decide what they can and cannot sell.
  • If the pharmacy stops selling Viagra and condoms, is there a group that will protest that the pharmacy is “denying men access to basic health care”?

On the other hand, do I think those who are upset about the decision should say nothing? No, I just think they should take their business elsewhere, rather than turning it into a political or “rights” issue and try to restrain the trade of a business.

I don’t mean to make light of this issue, but if you lay this sort of response down as a template over other businesses, or even other parts of the same business – it sounds a bit silly: What if Staples decided to stop carrying laser printers? Would the IEEE or the United Office Workers Local 136 petition to force them to start carrying laser printers again because they are denying people like me the right to basic printing services?

Another thought – is this a publicity stunt, created just to get attention, after which time the pharmacy will decide to “listen to its customers” and start selling them again? I doubt it, but it is possible.

My position on the pharmacy is that it’s a business, not a church or government entity. The owners took a risk to buy it, they own it (or it owns them). They pay the bills, they make the profits, they take the losses. As such, they have the right to decide what they do and don’t sell, even if it ticks you off and means you have to go 3 blocks farther down the street to Walgreens to get the Pill. Likewise, if you can find a pharmacy who will sell you oral contraceptives, nose hair clippers, condoms, orange TicTacs and a bikini wax kit, I don’t see why I should impede that right.

Stir the pot question: Are the rights of the egg and sperm violated by a couple who practice abstinence?


  1. I’m not Catholic, though several of my friends are.
  2. I’ve never had an abortion and would never agree to have one myself (though I am male, so that physical impossibility may be influencing my decision).
  3. I don’t own a pharmacy.
  4. I do own a laser printer (2, in fact), but do not own stock in Staples.
  5. I don’t care whether or not you agree with me about the pill, about business decisions being made on moral grounds, or the laser printer. However, I do enjoy a good, sane conversation about the issues of the day, so feel free to tell me what you think, preferably in something other than 8th grade “Oh Yeah???” terminology.
  6. I intentionally skipped discussion about whether or not the pharmacy has even thought about how they need to change their business/service to combat the Walgreen’s threat. There are a lot of parallels there with the Wal-Mart and Starbucks discussions. I’ll get to it later.

One reply on “Oil, water and the pharmacy”

Excellent analysis – the laser-printer analogy is precisely the type of analogy that the “anti-Snyder” crowd needs to understand.

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