Pharmacists Suspended over Prescription Oath

Walgreens suspends four Illinois pharmacists who wouldn't sign a pledge to fill all prescriptions. Some refused to give customers the "morning after" birth-control pill, citing religious beliefs. Maria Hickey of member station KWMU reports.

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This week, Walgreens placed four Illinois pharmacists on unpaid leave after they refused to fill prescriptions for all contraceptives. Some pharmacists don't want to dispense the so-called morning-after pill, but earlier this year, the governor of Illinois directed drugstores to fill all such prescriptions. Maria Hickey of member station KWMU in St. Louis has this report.

MARIA HICKEY reporting:

While the morning-after pill can prevent pregnancies if taken up to three days after a woman has unprotected sex, critics say it's in essence an early abortion, preventing a fertilized egg from attaching to the uterus. Illinois is the only state with a regulation specifically requiring pharmacies to fill contraceptives including emergency ones like the morning-after pill. Walgreens now wants its more than 1,000 pharmacists in Illinois stores to sign a statement promising to do so. Four pharmacists have refused. While none of the pharmacists was willing to talk to NPR, their attorney, Frank Manion, did. He's a lawyer with the American Center for Law and Justice.

Mr. FRANK MANION (American Center for Law and Justice): By requiring them to sign this, Walgreens has effectively said, `You will do this no matter what, no questions asked, without regard to your religious beliefs.' Not only is that unfair; it's illegal in the state of Illinois for Walgreens to demand that on them.

HICKEY: Manion points to the federal antidiscrimination act as well as Illinois' Health Care Right of Conscious Act, but Walgreens says it's simply following Illinois' law. Spokesman Michael Pulzene(ph) says Walgreens' corporate policy allows pharmacists outside Illinois to have another pharmacist fill a prescription or to direct customers to another store.

Mr. MICHAEL PULZENE (Spokesman, Walgreens): In all other states in which we operate, our pharmacists can choose to step away from filling a prescription that they do not wish to fill based on moral grounds, but in Illinois, because of the state law, we have to require our pharmacists to fill all these prescriptions.

HICKEY: In four states, Arkansas, Mississippi, Georgia and South Dakota, pharmacists' right to refuse to fill a prescription is protected under a specific law. Three other states, Massachusetts, North Carolina and California, require pharmacists or pharmacies to ensure prescriptions are filled. Lori Bickel is director of state relations for the American Pharmacists Association. She says more and more states are grappling with this issue.

Ms. LORI BICKEL (American Pharmacists Association): In 2005, we've certainly seen a flurry of activity throughout the states on both sides.

HICKEY: Bickel says the APA has a policy supporting a pharmacist's right to refuse to dispense medication, but it also wants pharmacies to develop plans to help customers get all their prescriptions. Illinois' rule requires pharmacies, not individual pharmacists, to fill the prescriptions, but Governor Rod Blagojevich supports Walgreens' decision to ask each of its pharmacists to dispense contraceptives and the morning-after pill. Sheila Nix is a senior adviser to the governor.

Ms. SHEILA NIX (Senior Adviser to Governor): He's happy that Walgreens is following the law, because it's important that the pharmacies fill prescriptions for women who have valid birth control prescriptions from their doctors, and he believes that Walgreens should do what they think they need to do in order to enforce the law.

HICKEY: Frank Manion, the attorney representing the four Walgreens pharmacists placed on leave, says the company went too far.

Mr. MANION: There's no question that Walgreens could comply with the rule and accommodate our clients. Other large chains in Illinois have done that.

HICKEY: Manion says they're considering whether to file suit against Walgreens. Meanwhile, two of the four pharmacists on leave are already involved in a suit against the state over its rule to require them to dispense contraceptives.

For NPR News, I'm Maria Hickey in St. Louis.

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