March 22, 2012 — Washington state health officials on Wednesday filed an appeal against a federal judge's ruling that struck down state regulations requiring pharmacies to dispense emergency contraception, Reuters reports (Neroulias, Reuters, 3/21).
The 2007 rule requires pharmacies to stock and dispense time-sensitive drugs for which there is a demand. 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.
Leighton struck down the rules on Feb. 22, saying that they are "unconstitutional" because they were designed "to force religious objectors to dispense Plan B." He added, "The most compelling evidence that the rules target religious conduct is the fact the rules contain numerous secular exemptions" (Women's Health Policy Report, 2/23).
Gov. Chris Gregoire (D) in a statement said she "fully supports" the appeal, which was filed by the office of Attorney General Rob McKenna (R) on behalf of the state Department of Health and the state Board of Pharmacy (La Corte, AP/Seattle Times, 3/21).
Tim Church, a health department spokesperson, said, "This isn't about religious objections," adding, "This rule is meant to ensure that people have access to time-sensitive medications." State officials noted that some pharmacies are more than 20 miles apart in rural areas of the state, meaning that a person denied service by one pharmacist might not be able to obtain medication in time from another provider.
Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest plans to join the state in the appeal. "We really feel that this could set a dangerous precedent and allow other health care providers to refuse to dispense emergency contraception or any other drug they personally disagree with," Kristen Glundberg-Prossor, a spokesperson for PPGNW, said.
A state judge in Illinois last year struck down a similar law. A few other states -- including California, New Jersey and Wisconsin -- have laws that require pharmacies to fill all valid prescriptions but also allow them to refer patients elsewhere in cases of moral objections. Six states specifically allow pharmacists to refuse to provide contraceptives, and several others have broader laws pertaining to moral and religious objections from pharmacists and other health care providers (Reuters, 3/21).