Legislators Join Pharmacists in 'Morning-After' Pill Battle

A pair of Illinois lawmakers is joining the fight to let pharmacists refuse to prescribe the morning-after pill, introducing bills regarding the issue to the state legislature.

Rep. Ron Stephens (R-Mulberry Grove) and Rep. Kurt Granberg, (D-Carlyle) both agree that that a rule introduced by Gov. Rod Blagojevich in April, and later approved permanently in August, must go.

“The governor is forcing a few pharmacists to choose between their religious beliefs and their livelihood,” said Rep. Stephens late last week, according to Copley news service. Stephens, a pharmacist himself, owns a pair of pharmacies and sponsors House Bill 4246.

Legal battles over the controversial requirement are taking place at the local and federal levels. Three Illinois pharmacists represented by conservative legal group American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) are suing Walgreens stores for unlawful religious discrimination after being put on indefinite unpaid leave in November for balking at the rule they said wrongly forces them to dispense the morning-after pill. At the federal level, meanwhile, a law signed by President George Bush last year with a “conscience” exception for medical professionals is being challenged by the State of California.

“People try to paint us as being religious zealots,” said Richard Quayle, one of the pharmacists in Illinois, according to the Associated Press. The 54-year-old from Highland, Ill., made no apologies for refusing to violate his religious beliefs and dispense emergency contraception.

“I have firm religious beliefs, and I choose not to destroy a human being,” he said last month. “I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad moral stance to take.”

One drug that the pharmacists object to is Plan B, which provides a much higher dose of the same ingredient in birth-control pills and is meant to be used up to 72 hours after intercourse.

Plan B is often referred to as an “emergency contraceptive” or “backup” birth-control by its manufacturer, Barr Labs, because it may prevent pregnancy before a sperm cell fertilizes the egg. However there is a chance that if an egg has already been fertilized, Plan B will prevent the fertilized egg from attaching itself to the uterine wall.

Pro-life groups note that in such a case, Plan B acts as an "anti-implantation" drug or an abortifacient, and not contraception because preventing the conceived egg from attaching itself to womb starves the new life to death.

“If you prevent the egg from implanting in the uterus, you prevent that from becoming a human being,” said Quayle, according to AP.

Rep. Kurt Granberg (D-Carlyle) said he wasn’t an ideologue, but said he can’t see people being forced to go against their religion. He added that the governor’s law needs more scrutiny.

“The legislature should have a role in enactment of a policy,” said Granberg, who sponsors House Bill 4230, according to Copley news service last week.

The bill amends a pharmacy law, which adds the words: “Pharmacist refusal to dispense emergency contraception. A pharmacist licensed under this Act may, based upon his or her personal, religious beliefs, refuse to fill a prescription for and to dispense emergency contraception.”

Pam Sutherland, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Planned Parenthood Council, doubts that both legislators’ proposals will move ahead in the Legislature, according to AP. Planned Parenthood provides access to birth-control and abortions.

She noted that both proposals are coming at a time when every member of the House is coming up for election.

“The women’s vote is very powerful,” she said.

Quayle, who is a Baptist, believes that life begins at conception.

“The media has painted us as a bunch of rogues and uncaring individuals, and that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” he said, according to AP. For him, the morning-after pill is little different than abortion.

He said he doesn’t mind providing access to regular birth control pills but that the morning-after “is not your typical birth control.”

“I like helping people. But I’m not here to kill anybody, and I won’t do it,” he added.

The ACLJ will defend his case based on already existing state law. The Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act makes it "unlawful for any person, public or private institution ... to discriminate against any person in any manner ... because of such person's conscientious refusal to ... participate in any way in any particular form of health care services contrary to his or her conscience."

“If you prevent the egg from implanting in the uterus, you prevent that from becoming a human being,” stated Quayle.