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Fighting Fundamentalist Pharmacies in Washington State

Eleanor J. Bader Aug 24

It should have been simple. Effective July 26, all 1,189 pharmacies — but not individual pharmacists — in Washington State would have been required to honor all prescriptions penned by licensed doctors.

Instead, a lawsuit was filed in federal court that morning. It was promulgated by Kevin Storman, owner of Ralph’s Thriftway and Bayview Thriftway, pharmacies in Olympia, the state capital. The lawsuit asks for a preliminary injunction to stop the law from being implemented. The reason? Among other things, Storman and his lawyers argue that the rule infringes on the free exercise of religion. That is, since Storman is vehemently opposed to abortion — and most contraception — he believes that forcing him and his store to dispense anything that could be construed as an abortifacient violates his conscience and interferes with his right to live his Christian faith. In his words, the rule causes him to “choose between religious beliefs and making a living.”

Storman’s pharmacies are not newcomers to the fray. Since 2006, a boycott against his Thriftway stores has been in effect because of Storman’s refusal to stock or sell Plan B, the so-called Morning After Pill. The boycott was initiated by Olympia resident Janet Blanding and Storman has admitted to local media that it has cut down on his profits. But he doesn’t care.

In fact, it was his actions — and the actions of other pharmacists throughout the state — that caused the law to be passed in the first place. According to Lisa Stone, Executive Director of The Northwest Women’s Law Center, a 30-year-old social justice legal firm based in Seattle, residents have experienced numerous refusals to honor prescriptions not only for contraception, but for antibiotics, syringes and other prescribed medications. “In one case a woman who had had an abortion went to a pharmacy with a prescription for antibiotics, typical post-abortion care,” Stone begins. “When the pharmacists saw the name of the clinic that had issued the prescription, they refused to fill it. In another case a man who was diabetic had a prescription for syringes but because he had a lot of tattoos the pharmacist thought he was a drug user and would not honor it.” In other incidents, women have been denied Plan B, oral contraceptives and Mifepristone, a drug that is routinely taken before fibroid surgery, because it can also be used to end unwanted pregnancies.

With such egregious violations, is it any wonder that the state passed a rule requiring pharmacies to fill all legitimate prescriptions? In fact, Stone reports that the state Pharmacy Board received 21,000 comments from consumers prior to passing the law, 18,000 of them from pro-choice individuals and groups.

Those folks are fighting mad at Storman and his supporters and have vowed to challenge efforts to stop the new rule from taking effect. The Northwest Women’s Law Center is at the helm of the opposition to Storman’s bid for a preliminary injunction. While the Center expects to win, they and other progressives will do whatever it takes to ensure drug access. “We believe that the case lacks merit, but whichever side wins, I anticipate that there will be appeals to the 9th Circuit and possibly all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court,” Stone says.

CONSCIENCE CLAUSE LEGISLATION

In 1998, South Dakota passed the nation’s first law extending “conscience clauses” to pharmacists. Since then, a dozen states have considered such legislation. Only four —California, Missouri, New Jersey and West Virginia — have laws expressly requiring pharmacies to honor all legally-written prescriptions. In these states, if an individual pharmacist has a moral objection to filling a particular order, he or she is mandated to find another pharmacist to do the job.

The tactic of pushing conscience clauses for pharmacists has gotten a boost from organizations including Pharmacists for Life International, Americans United for Life and the DC-based American Center for Law and Justice, groups that support pharmacies that refuse to sell mifepristone, Plan B and all oral and barrier contraceptives.

To counter their efforts and build on the four states that protect patients, Congress members Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) introduced The Access to Birth Control Act, ABC, in June. The Act prohibits pharmacies from refusing to sell prescription medications.