Federal Judge Blocks Wash. Rule Requiring Pharmacies to Dispense Emergency Contraception

February 23, 2012 — A federal judge on Wednesday struck down Washington state regulations requiring pharmacies to dispense emergency contraception, The Hill's "Healthwatch" reports (Pecquet, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 2/22).

The 2007 rule requires pharmacies to stock and dispense time-senstive drugs for which there is a demand (Johnson, AP/Sacramento Bee, 2/22). The state permits individual pharmacists to defer prescriptions to other pharmacists at the same location, as long as doing so does not create delays.

A drug store and two pharmacists sued in 2007, arguing that dispensing EC would infringe on their religious beliefs. U.S. District Judge Ronald Leighton blocked the state from enforcing the rule, but a panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said he applied the wrong legal standard and sent the case back to him (Women's Health Policy Report, 2/3).

In his ruling on Wednesday, Leighton said, "The Board of Pharmacy's 2007 rules are not neutral, and they are not generally applicable." He called the rules "unconstitutional" because they were designed "to force religious objectors to dispense Plan B" (Wetzstein, Washington Times, 2/22).

Leighton added, "The most compelling evidence that the rules target religious conduct is the fact the rules contain numerous secular exemptions." For example, pharmacies can decline to stock a drug if it is likely to increase the risk of theft or it is out of stock, among other reasons. "In sum, the rules exempt pharmacies and pharmacists from stocking and delivering lawfully prescribed drugs for an almost unlimited variety of secular reasons, but fail to provide exemptions for reasons of conscience," Leighton said.

Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) said she is concerned about how the ruling will affect patients. "I am especially concerned about those living in rural areas, many of whom may have few alternatives and could suffer lengthy delays in receiving medication or go without entirely," she said (AP/Sacramento Bee, 2/22).

Gregoire said there are "strong arguments to make on appeal," adding that she will meet with state officials to discuss "the best path forward" (Washington Times, 2/22).