This summer, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. made a half-million dollar contribution to Xavier University of Louisiana's College of Pharmacy.

Pfizer's corporate largess included computers and lab equipment, $300,000 in cash to help rebuild Katrina-ravaged buildings and a promise to hire Xavier students for paid summer internships. Ironically, Pfizer also made millions of dollars this summer from the sale of Depo-Provera, an injectable form of hormonal birth control.

Xavier University was founded with the help of St. Katharine Drexel and the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in 1925.

While the dean of Xavier's pharmacy program declined an interview about the potential conflict in a Catholic university taking money from a contraceptive manufacturer, school officials say Pfizer's funds are welcome. "Accepting money from an organization doesn't mean we're endorsing them item for item," said an official who asked not to be named.

Xavier pharmacy students will, in fact, have a chance to ponder the issues in ethics seminars newly launched this fall, as well as the required health-ethics course.

Veteran pharmacist Karen Brauer, founder of Pharmacists for Life International, isn't sure a couple of classes will be enough to prepare young Catholic pharmacists for the ethical dilemmas they'll face in the marketplace.

"Most Catholic pharmacists dispense birth-control pills," said Brauer, a parishioner at St. Lawrence Catholic Church in Lawrenceburg, Ind. "You can't be employed if you won't dispense the Pill. The morning-after pill is now the No. 1 problem for pro-life pharmacists."

Conscience pangs

Brauer founded Pharmacists for Life International (PHLI) in 1996 after Kmart fired her for refusing to fill a prescription for birth-control pills.

Even though the Kmart pharmacy in Delhi, Ohio, had plenty of Micronor in stock, Brauer told a customer they were out. Micronor's synthetic progesterone could keep a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine wall. The Church teaches that life begins at conception, so preventing an embryo from implanting on the uterine wall is destruction of human life.

She has the same objection to Plan B, the popular morning-after pill recently approved for over-the-counter sales by the Food and Drug Administration. Plan B, also called "emergency contraception," is a megadose of hormones that can prevent a pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of sexual intercourse.

While the drug will not abort a child like the controversial RU-486, it can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting. Prevention of implantation is forbidden under ethical directives given Catholic hospitals by the U.S. bishops.

The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that the Church rejects abortion and sterilization along with contraception. "This rejection is based on a correct and integral understanding of the person and human sexuality and represents a moral call to defend the true development of peoples" (No. 233).

Hand it over

Although available over the counter, Plan B will actually be shelved behind the counter because, by law, the purchaser must be at least 18 years old. Pharmacists -- including Catholics who believe contraception is morally wrong -- will be asked to hand it over.

"A pharmacist cannot be compelled to cooperate with what he knows will result in a chemical abortion and, hence, a dead baby," says Brauer, who sued Kmart for wrongful termination.

Brauer isn't the only one to suffer for conscience pangs. Fellow Catholic Neil Noesen was reprimanded and fined by Wisconsin's Pharmacy Examining Board for refusing to refill a birth-control pill prescription.

Eckerd's Pharmacy fired three pharmacists in Texas, for refusing to dispense a morning-after pill to a woman who was raped.

Brauer wants to see states adopt "conscience clauses" that would allow pharmacists to opt out of dispensing morally questionable drugs without fear of legal action. Only four states have passed such clauses, while a fifth -- Washington -- seriously considered such a rule before backing down last month.

College prep

Five Catholic universities, including Xavier, have full six-year doctor of pharmacy programs. Another four Catholic colleges have two-year pre-pharmacy programs, after which aspiring pharmacists must transfer to a four-year program somewhere else.

All of the Catholic six-year programs require an ethics course, while most of the two-year programs do not. None of the professors teaching ethics courses to pharmacy students agreed to be interviewed by Our Sunday Visitor.

A lone dean, Bob Mangione of the College of Pharmacy and Allied Health Professions at St. John's University in New York, answered questions about the ethical formation of pharmacy students. "Our goal is to make sure they understand the teachings of the Church," said Mangione, whose school graduates around 200 pharmacists a year after six years of study. "We encourage them not to engage in activities that go against their religious and ethical beliefs."

Even though St. John's welcomes non-Catholics, all pharmacy students must take classes on Catholic theology and the morality of health care.

Elisa Konieczko, head of the pre-pharmacy program at the Erie, Pa., diocesan Gannon University, says that while pre-pharmacy students do not take medical ethics during their two years at Gannon, they can discuss their concerns with theologians on campus or even a priest who teaches biology at the school.

"As a Catholic, you don't have to do something you're not comfortable with -- but you could lose your job or be sued," Konieczko said.

Brauer believes Catholic pharmacy programs need to be more clear and forceful about the morality of dispensing contraception. She doesn't think Xavier's partnership with Pfizer is a step in that direction.

"Catholic universities need to be free of money from unsavory entities and organizations doing evil," she said. "It's almost impossible. If you adhere to Catholic belief, your career choices as a pharmacist will be extremely limited."

Steven Saint writes from Colorado.