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Just Fill The Prescription, Please

 article about pharmacist

Last Friday, Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich filed an emergency rule that clarifies pharmacies in Illinois that sell contraceptives must accept and fill prescriptions for contraceptives without delay. In taking this bold and decisive action against pharmacists who insist that their religious beliefs against contraception gives them the right to deny women their legal prescriptions from their doctors, he has done what I thought was not possible for an elected official in the current political environment; to stand up to the religious right and tell them "no." And I would like to offer Governor Blagojevich both my thanks and my admiration. It's not often that a politician proves me wrong. I can only hope that governors of states across the country will begin doing the same thing.

Gov. Blagojevich made the point that the refusal of pharmacists to fill patients' prescriptions for contraceptives, particularly the Morning After Pill and regular birth control pills, is occurring with an alarming frequency. It is happening not just in his state of Illinois, but in states all over the country, including Wisconsin, Texas, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, and California. "Now I don't believe this is a coincidence. I have a sneaking suspicion that in all likelihood, this is part of a concerted effort to deny women access to birth control. Those involved in this effort may be getting away with this in other states, but here in Illinois, we are not going to let that happen," said Gov. Blagojevich. The emergency rule takes effect immediately for 150 days while the Illinois administration seeks a permanent rule. Under the new rule, if a pharmacist will not fill the patient's prescription because of a religious or moral objection, another pharmacist must be available to fill it without delay.

In addition to filing the new emergency rule, Gov. Blagojevich also introduced a new toll-free number where women can report to state regulators if a pharmacy fails to dispense a prescription for contraceptives in a timely and appropriate manner. The toll-free number is 1-800-280-4149, and the complaint unit at Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation (IDFPR) has been trained to handle these types of pharmacy complaints. If a woman in Illinois has a problem getting contraceptive prescriptions filled in future, she will have an immediate course of action, whereas before, she had almost nowhere to turn for assistance. Women who want to have the same recourse in other states would be very wise to write to their elected representatives, and request that a similar toll-free number be put in place for them as well.

Planned Parenthood Federation of America had high praises for the Governor's action. "When medical professionals write prescriptions for their patients, they are acting in their patients' best interests," said Steve Trombley, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood/Chicago Area. "A pharmacist's personal views cannot intrude on the relationship between a woman and her doctor. A pharmacist must dispense prescriptions issued by health care providers, otherwise the patient's health is unnecessarily at risk."

Members of Pharmacists For Life will, no doubt, strongly disagree with Trombley's statement, using the argument that pregnancy is not a disease. However, such an argument blatantly ignores the simple fact that if a woman went to the trouble of visiting her doctor for the purpose of obtaining birth control pills or another contraceptive, she obviously did not want to become pregnant as a result of sexual intercourse. When a pharmacist refuses to fill that prescription, this puts the customer at a higher risk for an unwanted pregnancy.

If she becomes pregnant as a result of that refusal, and chooses to abort the pregnancy, a pharmacist has, in effect, forced the customer to undergo a surgical abortion. A procedure that would have been unnecessary had the pharmacist simply done his or her job and filled the prescription to begin with.

Of course, not everyone is happy about Gov. Blagojevich's new emergency rule. Religious conservatives, who have strongly supported the "right" of Pharmacists For Life members to refuse dispensing prescriptions for birth control pills and other contraceptives, are a bit upset, to put it mildly, that the efforts of pharmacists to deny women birth control have been sharply reined in, at least in Illinois. Several prominent Christian groups and leaders have loudly complained that any legislation that thwarts the actions of pro-life pharmacists is tantamount to deliberate persecution.

In a statement issued on April 1, Americans United For Life, a conservative pro-life organization, has charged that Gov. Blagojevich's emergency rule has stripped pharmacies in Illinois of their "right" to object to participate in the distribution of specific drugs and devices related to stopping pregnancies. Nikolas T. Nikas, General Council of the group, said that "the move is coercive and forces Illinois pharmacies to be active participants in activities where they have moral or religious objections." Of course, this group isn't the only one upset about the new rule.

"This is yet another case where the religious rights of Christians are being threatened today," said Rev. Mark H. Creech, one of the leading representatives of the ultra-conservative American Family Association. "It's just another example of how liberal activists fight to see everyone's rights are protected Ė unless, of course, those individuals happen to be followers of Christ." What Rev. Creech is forgetting Ė or more likely, ignoring Ė is the fact that the United States is a country where religious beliefs do not trump the legal rights of female citizens who only wish to obtain the contraception that their doctor prescribed for them. Considering that Rev. Creech has made it clear in the past that he is as strongly opposed to contraception as he is to abortion, one can't help taking any statements he makes in this matter with a healthy amount of skepticism.

Despite the posturing and hand-wringing from the pro-life side of the debate, pharmacists who object to contraception do have other options. If they don't like being ordered to do the jobs they were hired to do, which is filling legal prescriptions written by doctors, they can seek employment at establishments that don't sell contraceptives. These establishments would include privately-funded, religiously-affiliated hospitals and pharmacies where contraceptives aren't being offered. Or they can decide to find another line of work, where their religious views won't intrude on the rights of others who don't share their beliefs.

Naturally, there will probably be some pharmacists who refuse to consider such a simple course of action. The reasoning behind any resistance is obvious; in a different working environment, they would no longer be active participants in the anti-contraception movement and get encouraging pats on the back from their religious leaders. However, their personal dissatisfaction isn't our problem, since they never had the constitutional right to deny women access to birth control in the first place.

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