Pharmacists in Illinois asked the State Supreme Court on Tuesday to overturn a rule that requires them to dispense an "emergency" contraception pill in spite of their moral objections.
Three years ago, Gov. Rod Blagojevich issued an order that required pharmacies to fill prescription contraceptives, including the so-called "morning-after" pill, which is supposed to reduce the chance of pregnancy if taken within three days of unprotected sex.
The emergency contraception pill, which also goes by "Plan B," contains a higher dosage of hormones than those found in regular birth control pills.
But Vander Bleek and Glenn Kosirog, the plaintiffs in the high court case, say they believe Plan B is more likely than regular birth control pills to prevent a fertilized egg from implanting, the State Journal Register reported. The pharmacy owners both hold Christian views and say they believe that preventing implantation is tantamount to abortion, according to the paper.
The two filed the case two and a half years ago. Lower courts had ruled that the pharmacists had no standing to challenge the rule because they had not yet been fired or disciplined over the governor's mandate.
Mark Rienzi, who is representing the pharmacy owners, however, defended their right to challenge the law before they are adversely affected by it.
He argued before justices Tuesday that the plaintiffs' rights are protected by two state laws – one that prohibits forcing health care decisions over moral objections and one insulating citizens from religious interference, according to the Associated Press.
"They are designed to protect people from coercion and burden," Rienzi said. "They are not only designed to protect people after the ax has fallen, after your license is taken away, after your career is ruined."
Laura Wunder, an attorney for the governor, said that the pharmacists in the suit have a low chance of violating the order because their pharmacies don't stock the "morning-after" pill.
But during oral arguments, justices pointed out to Wunder that that under the rule, pharmacies are required to stock the drugs if requested, thereby putting their licenses at risk if they don't comply, the AP reported.
"If 'place the order' wasn't in the rule itself, I would imagine the pharmacies that have a problem with dispensing the drug would just not stock it, and if they didn't have to order, what's the problem?" posed Chief Justice Robert Thomas. "But the rule does say they have to order it if the customer asks them to."
A compromise reached in a different case allowed individual pharmacists who object to filling a prescription for Plan B to refer customers to another pharmacist at another location.
That rule is still awaiting approval from the legislative Joint Committee on Administrative Rules, according to AP. The same committee is also considering a change requested by the Blagojevich administration to require all pharmacies to stock emergency contraception if they sell any forms of prescription contraception.
Despite the committee's decision, Rienzi said that his clients are different because they are pharmacy owners who don't want to stock the drug at all. Under the rule, owners of the pharmacies are obligated to find a way to fulfill each woman's prescription.
Overturning the governor's mandate wouldn't necessarily result in women being denied Plan B, Rienzi said outside the courtroom.
"If the state wants to make it more available … the state could give it out for free," Rienzi told reporters after the court hearing, according to the State Journal Register. "The state could keep a database so that every customer would know exactly which pharmacies carry it and which do not."
A similar legal battle over the emergency birth control pill is underway in Washington, where a federal judge ruled that pharmacists can refuse to dispense orders on the drug while the case is resolved. Objecting pharmacists would still have to refer customers to another nearby source.