Good Medicine: Washington Pharmacy Board Makes The Right Call On Prescriptions And ‘Conscience’ Claims

The Washington Board of Pharmacy has made a wise (and unexpected) move.

Last night, the board voted 5-1 to keep in place a rule that protects patients’ rights. The regulation ensures that a pharmacy cannot refuse to fill prescriptions for “time-sensitive” medication, such as Plan B pills that can help prevent pregnancy after intercourse, just because it conflicts with the pharmacist’s “conscience” or religious beliefs.

“They looked at the rule and said, ‘We think it’s worked fine,’” said Tim Church, a spokesman for the state Department of Health.

The decision comes as quite a pleasant surprise, considering it looked like the board was ready to cave to Religious Right pressure and change the rule.

The regulation, which was initially passed in July 2007, has a long legal history. Soon after it passed, Religious Right groups were outraged, even though the board attempted a compromise allowing for individual pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions on moral and religious grounds so long as another pharmacist at the pharmacy could do so.

Groups like the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), a large Religious Right legal group, claimed the regulation hindered pharmacists’ “freedom of conscience.”

“As Christians, when we open the door of our workplace, we should not be forced to set our morals and convictions aside,” wrote Alan Sears, president and general counsel of the ADF. “Nor should government bureaucrats be allowed to dictate what we believe, mandating behavior that violates our conscience and faith principles.”

The ADF, representing a family who owned a small pharmacy, sued to suspend the newly-passed state regulations.

Stormans, Inc. v. Selecky reached the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which rejected the Religious Right overture by upholding the rule in 2009 as constitutional and sending the matter back down to a lower court for further proceedings.

In the meantime, the board said it would consider altering the regulation – a decision that civil liberties groups worried was an indication that the board planned to cater to the Religious Right.

Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. The state’s board of pharmacy, in affirming its original regulation, has protected the rights of women across the state and deserves to be commended.

Women should not be turned away just because a pharmacist wants to impose his or her religious view on everyone else, which is what Americans United told the 9th Circuit in a friend-of-the-court brief in 2009.

Federal civil rights laws already require employers to provide reasonable accommodations for religious observances and practices in the workplace. That’s fine, so long as those accommodations don’t infringe on the civil rights of others.

The National Women’s Law Center has recorded multiple instances from as far back as 2004, including one in which a rape survivor was turned away from an Eckerd Pharmacy by three pharmacists, all of whom refused to fill a needed prescription due to religious beliefs.

A friend of the victim said the pharmacists’ refusals to fill the prescription amounted to a second victimization.

That should never happen.  In the state of Washington, thanks to the board’s decision, it never will.