October 10, 2012

Pharmacists Can’t Be Forced to Dispense ‘Morning-After’ Pill, Illinois Court Says

Chicago—The legal debate continues across the United States about whether pharmacists’ right to refuse to sell or dispense emergency contraceptives supersedes the right of customers to have the products available whenever and wherever they choose.

In the latest salvo, an Illinois appeals court determined that pharmacists who have religious objections to selling or dispensing emergency contraceptives can’t be forced to do so in that state.

The ruling upheld a lower court injunction against an effort by the state of Illinois to force pharmacists to sell the so-called “morning-after” pill. Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich had mandated in 2005 that all pharmacies and pharmacists sell Plan B and similar products, stating that pharmacists with religious objections should “find another profession” if they didn’t want to comply.

“This decision is a great victory for religious freedom,” said Mark Rienzi, senior counsel for the Becket Fund, a religious freedom advocacy group that represented the pharmacy and pharmacist plaintiffs. “The government shouldn’t kick business owners out of the market just because it dislikes their religious beliefs.”

In 2011, a trial court determined that the law was not neutral because pharmacies were allowed to refuse to sell the drugs for business reasons but not religious objections. It also noted that the drugs were readily available at other locations, even if some pharmacies refused to sell the product.

The court of appeals agreed, noting that Illinois law “prohibits discrimination in licensing” against a person or business who cannot provide health care services because of a religious objection. Therefore, the state was not allowed to enforce the mandate against the plaintiffs.

The American Civil Liberties Union had argued in defense of the governor’s mandate that prescribing emergency contraceptives fell under an exception in the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience for “emergency medical care,” because the drugs are most effective when taken immediately after unprotected intercourse.

The Illinois ruling followed a similar one from Washington State earlier this year. In that case, Stormans v. Selecky, a U.S. District judge ruled that the state cannot force pharmacies to sell Plan B or other emergency contraceptives, suggesting the state's true goal was to suppress religious objections by druggists instead of simply providing access to the medications.

U.S. Pharmacist Social Connect