Washington pharmacists who have religious objections to abortion or birth control can be sanctioned by the state if they send customers to another store for emergency contraception, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
In a case watched closely by advocates of personal religious freedom and women’s rights, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a trial court ruling against a state regulation that pharmacies must make Plan B and other emergency contraception available. A pharmacist with a religious objection to the drug can refuse to fill a prescription only if another pharmacist at the store is available who will, the state had said.
The owners of Ralph’s Thriftway, a supermarket and pharmacy in Olympia which sued the state over the regulation, plan to appeal. Kevin Stormans, president of Stormans Inc., said in a news release that the state allows pharmacies to make referrals for other reasons and 33 stores stock the drug within 5 miles of the store.
“All we are asking is to be able to live out the beliefs that we hold, as Americans have always been able to do, and to be able to refer patients for religious reasons, as the medical and pharmaceutical associations overwhelmingly recommend,” he said.
But state Attorney General Bob Ferguson praised the decision as a victory for Washington residents. “Decisions regarding medical care – including reproductive rights – are appropriately between a patient and his or her medical professionals,” Ferguson said in a news release.
Stormans and two pharmacists challenged the rules established by the Washington Pharmacy Quality Assurance Commission as they took effect in 2007. They argued the rules violate their First Amendment rights to freedom of religion because they believe life begins at the moment of conception. The drugs can keep a fertilized egg from being implanted, so they regard it as a form of abortion that takes a human life.
Not everyone agrees with that belief, the appeals court said, and the three-judge panel was unwilling to recognize that as a new fundamental right that would allow a business to ignore a rational regulation. The commission did set up a rational reason for its regulation, which the record indicates is to ensure patients’ timely access to drugs they need without allowing pharmacists to refuse different medicines for personal, moral objections.