Washington State Allows Pharmacies to Opt Out of Plan B

After years of bitter court battles, attorneys of the state of Washington conceded that pharmacies have the right not to stock Plan B pills based on conscience rights.

Attorneys told a federal judge on Wednesday that the state will seek to create new rules for pharmacists with conscientious objections. The new regulations would allow the plaintiffs in the lawsuit – the owners of Ralph's Thriftway pharmacy and two pharmacists – to not stock nor dispense Plan B, also known as the "the morning after pill."

Plan B is a controversial contraceptive pill that prevents implantation. Pro-life groups and individuals are opposed to the drug because they contend it is tantamount to abortion.

"Americans should not be forced out of their professions solely because of their religious beliefs – but that is exactly what Washington State sought to do," said Luke Goodrich, legal counsel at The Becket Fund, which represents the plaintiffs. "The government should accommodate and protect the fundamental rights of all members of the medical profession, not punish some members because of their religious beliefs."

The plaintiffs have decided to postpone the trial after hearing about Washington State Board of Pharmacy's plan to change the rule. The trial was scheduled to take place in less than two weeks when Washington state announced the planned revision.

Throughout the past few years, the state has maintained that it needed to restrict the religious freedom of pharmacies and pharmacists in order to ensure patient access to the morning after pill. But this week the state finally acknowledged that allowing pharmacies to refer patients to other pharmacies "is a time-honored pharmacy practice" and "do[es] not pose a threat to timely access to lawfully prescribed medications."

In 2006, the State Board of Pharmacy unanimously supported a rule to protect the conscience rights of pharmacy workers. Under that rule, pharmacists were allowed to refuse to dispense Plan B for religious reasons and refer patients to nearby suppliers.

But when Gov. Christine Gregoire heard about the protection she publicly threatened to fire the board's members and called them late at night to persuade them to change it. Later, the State's Human Rights Commission hinted that board members could be held personally liable under gender discrimination laws if they supported the rule.

Under immense pressure, board members decided to require pharmacies to stock and dispense Plan B even if there is conscience objection.

"This sends a clear signal to Governor Christine Gregoire that her bullying tactics are not acceptable," said Eric Rassbach, national director of litigation for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "It may come as a surprise to her, but conscientious and principled people like the owners and pharmacists of Ralph's Thriftway are the backbone of this country."

Carrie Gordon Earll, senior bioethics analyst for CitizenLink, said hopefully other states will follow Washington's lead and also pass laws to protect medical conscience rights.

"For a liberal state like Washington to backtrack in this way speaks to the credibility of the argument that health care providers, including pharmacists, should not be forced to participate in actions or dispense drugs that violate their rights of conscience – whether they are motivate by religious or moral beliefs," commented Earll.

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