Pharmacists and Jesus Freaks
Local Pharmacies Are Defying State Law by Refusing to Stock Emergency Contraception Medicine
The ruling was not as terrible as it could've been: On February 22, US District judge Ronald Leighton in Tacoma found that one family-owned pharmacy in Washington State and two licensed pharmacists with objections to issuing the emergency contraceptive known as Plan B cannot be forced to carry or sell the drug, as it infringed upon their religious freedom. But the ruling, although narrowly applied to those three plaintiffs, sets a troubling precedent that will likely be challenged.
"As a practical matter, it sends a disturbing free-for-all message to pharmacies that want to refuse emergency contraception and other drugs," explains Lisa Stone, executive director of the women's advocacy group Legal Voice, which assisted in the case.
If Judge Leighton's ruling were upheld in higher courts, legal experts say, it could allow a wide array of medical professionals to deny services based on moral objections. For example, a Catholic doctor could deny lesbian couples fertility treatments.
But for now, while Attorney General Rob McKenna's office considers taking the case to the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—they have until March 22 to file an appeal—state attorneys say that the law of the land is clear: Every other pharmacy in Washington State must abide by a 2007 Board of Pharmacy rule that requires all pharmacies to stock and sell medications for which there is a community need—including emergency contraception.
Nevertheless, many still refuse, so The Stranger called 16 pharmacies around the state to find out why.
"We don't carry it because our pharmacists don't want to carry it," said a Vancouver, Washington, pharmacist—who refused to identify himself—from the Apothecary at Salmon Creek. When pressed for a reason, he hung up. A call back confirmed that, like the plaintiffs in the recent lawsuit, the decision was for "religious reasons, because what if baby Jesus had been aborted?" another pharmacy employee said.
(For the record, Plan B is not an abortion drug—it's basically an extra-strength dose of birth control.)
But Assistant Attorney General Rene Tomisser, who defended the state in the recent Plan B ruling, says this pharmacy and others are flagrantly disobeying the law. "Even if they have a religious objection, they simply wouldn't be able to refuse to comply," Tomisser explains. "They would have to file an injunction as the plaintiffs in this case did."
And yet a November 2011 survey conducted by NARAL Pro-Choice Washington found that roughly 12 percent of the state's 1,432 licensed pharmacies refuse to carry emergency contraception. That's roughly 172 pharmacies out of compliance with state law.
"We do not stock it," confirmed Geraldine, a pharmacist from the Maple Leaf Pharmacy on Roosevelt Way Northeast. She helpfully added that if someone requested it, they "can order it and get it in 12 days."
Plan B is highly effective at preventing pregnancy if ingested within 72 hours of unprotected sex, but its efficacy diminishes as time passes. The drug isn't recommended after 5 days, let alone 12 days later.
Women in search of the over-the-counter drug could find themselves in a race against the clock. This places an undue burden on women living in rural areas, where pharmacists are more likely to be conservative and pharmacies are fewer and farther between.
So why isn't the state intervening?
"We don't proactively go out and ask folks what their beliefs are and if they're following the rule," explains Tim Church, a spokesman for the Department of Health, which is responsible for licensing and monitoring pharmacies. "It's really a complaint-driven process." And since 2009, the DOH has received just two complaints against pharmacies for denying women access to Plan B. Neither complaint resulted in the business or an employee being reprimanded.
And while Plan B is a political piñata, it isn't the only medication pharmacies are refusing to dispense. According to Stone, who has represented patients who've been refused medication, a pharmacist in the Puget Sound area refused to fill a pregnant woman's asthma prescription because she believed it would be bad for her baby (the pregnant woman wound up in the ER), a man in Southwest Washington was refused an erectile dysfunction drug from a pharmacist who believed he would use it to cheat on his wife, and an Oregon woman was denied her anti- anxiety medication—her pharmacist told her to try yoga instead. Stone says, "Today it's Plan B, but tomorrow someone could be refusing to fill a patient's HIV medication."