A federal judge on Thursday suspended Washington’s rule requiring state pharmacists to sell the “morning after” birth control pill, cheering druggists who claimed it violated their religious freedoms.
A preliminary injunction granted by U.S. District Judge Ronald B. Leighton prevents the state from disciplining pharmacists who refuse to dispense the medication, known as Plan B, as long as they immediately refer patients to nearby sources.
The order is the latest move in an ongoing political and legal battle over the medication, which dramatically reduces the chance of pregnancy if taken by a woman within 72 hours of unprotected sex.
State regulators last summer ruled that pharmacists couldn’t refuse to dispense any medication based on personal convictions. Kevin Stormans, an Olympia pharmacy owner, and two individual pharmacists, sued the state Department of Health over the decision.
“I think people should have the right to exercise their freedom of religion, and that includes at their place of business,” said Stormans, reached by phone Thursday. “Plan B is a life-ending product. We specifically have issues with this life-ending product.”
Stormans’ company operates the Ralph’s Thriftway pharmacy in Olympia. The individual pharmacists include Rhonda Mesler and Margo Thelen.
Plan B works by using high doses of common birth control medication to prevent implantation of a fertilized egg. Opponents regard it as a form of abortion. It is not the same as RU-486, the so-called “abortion pill,” and has no effect if a woman is already pregnant.
Leighton’s ruling indicated that Stormans and the others demonstrated “a likelihood of success” that they could uphold claims that their free exercise of religion had been violated.
Civil rights advocates, women’s groups and state health officials vowed Thursday to overturn the injunction, calling it an impediment to access for all types of medication, including antibiotics and drugs for HIV treatment.
“It was a disappointment,” said Don Honig, a spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington state. “The issue is access without discrimination or delay. It’s not just about Plan B, it’s about all medications.”
Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent, said she’d propose legislation during the next session that would change the rule requiring pharmacists to dispense medications to law. Keiser, who chairs the Senate Health and Long-term Care Committee, said in a statement that she had worried the state Pharmacy Board requirement would be blocked in federal court.
“It is unconscionable that we would allow pharmacists to deny women access to a legal form of birth control,” she said. “We need to take this issue out of the courts and into state law.”
The injunction creates a system in which pharmacists can refuse to fill a request for Plan B if they refer customers to a nearby source. But that could effectively deny the drugs completely to residents in rural areas, said Jet Tilley, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Inland Northwest. Advocates argue that women must have access to the medication as soon as possible for it to be effective.
A 23-year-old Spokane woman, Catherine Rosman, was among seven Washington residents allowed to intervene in the lawsuit. Rosman, described as a married graduate student and member of Spiritual Youth for Reproductive Freedom, has said she was turned down when she sought Plan B.
Rosman could not be reached immediately on Thursday.
Plan B, manufactured by Barr Pharmaceuticals, was approved for over-the-counter sale last year. Sales of Plan B doubled from about $40 million to $80 million after the approval, according to Barr representatives.