BLOGHow the Attack on the Conscience Rights of these Pharmacists Threatens All Americans

By Jane Scharl Posted on: | April 14, 2016

In a democracy, when people talk, the government should listen—especially when lots of people, all experts in their field, are saying the same thing. That’s exactly what’s happening in Alliance Defending Freedom’s (ADF) case Stormans v. Wiesman, which is currently awaiting a decision as to whether the Supreme Court will grant review. During the wait, however, we’ve seen a surge of support for rights of conscience, which indicates that people across America are waking up to the threat to their rights and are eager to join hands and work together for liberty.

A quick refresher on the case: Planned Parenthood and former Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire collaborated on a set of rules that in practice eliminated the right of pharmacists to refer patients for conscience reasons, while retaining plenty of other reasons for referrals. Basically, if a pharmacy chooses to cater to a particular niche market, doesn’t want to hassle with extra paperwork or a certain insurer, or simply thinks it won’t make enough profit to justify carrying the product, the state allows it to refer patients to other pharmacies. But if a pharmacist or a pharmacy owner has a religious objection to the drug, they have to stock and dispense it anyway. On top of this, the rules also required pharmacies to carry abortifacients like Plan B (the morning after pill) and ella (the week-after pill), which, according to the FDA, can cause early-stage abortions.

These rules were so egregious that, at first, the state’s Pharmacy Commission rejected them unanimously. But that didn’t stop Gregoire and Planned Parenthood. In response, the Governor threatened to replace the members unless they reversed their position and ultimately ended up replacing some of them to make sure she got the result she wanted.

This left the Stormans family, third-generation owners of Ralph’s Thriftway grocery store and pharmacy, and Christian pharmacists like Margo Thelen and Rhonda Mesler, in the crosshairs. The Stormans and these pharmacists believe that life begins at fertilization; therefore, dispensing medications like Plan B and ella means they’re complicit in taking human life. That wasn’t a line they were willing to cross. The Stormans, Margo, and Rhonda were all test-shopped by abortion activists and those activists filed complaints against the Stormans with the Commission.  Facing the loss of their professional licenses, the legal battle began. After a 12-day federal trial with over 800 exhibits and 22 witnesses, the court issued over 100 pages of findings and a permanent injunction in favor of the Stormans and the pharmacists that stopped the state’s rules from being applied to them. But this decision was reversed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. In January 2015, ADF asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the case.

But the Stormans and two pharmacists are not the only ones asking the Court to intervene – lots of people are.  Fourteen briefs have been filed, asking the Supreme Court to grant review. The briefs aren’t all from religious organizations that share the Stormans’ concerns about distributing abortifacients; on the contrary, they’re signed by no fewer than 38 non-religious pharmacy associations, including the nation’s largest, the American Pharmacists Association (APA). In addition, 43 members of Congress, 13 state attorneys general, 29 notable legal scholars, and more the 4600 individual health care professionals have also spoken out in defense of rights of conscience for all.

What is it about this case that has sparked such widespread support from people across the spectrum of American culture: religious and non-religious; medical practitioners, government leaders, and scholars; individuals and national organizations? It’s pretty simple. It’s wrong for the state to allow pharmacists to refer for all kinds of secular business and convenience reasons and, as the trial court found, to pass a law in order to “stamp out” referrals for conscience.  Referral is also the standard of care in the medical profession.  Banning referrals to serve a pro-abortion political agenda hurts everyone.  And finally, many understand more clearly now that threats against the right of conscience for one group are threats against conscience for all. In other words, if the government can silence religious pharmacists and take away their licenses, it can silence other pharmacists, and other citizens it doesn’t agree with and take away their livelihoods as well.  

Washington State’s rules tell medical practitioners that their conscience is irrelevant, that the government has taken up the business of making all ethical and health care decisions, and that everyone has to fall in line with it. No matter who you are, that’s very concerning.

The overreach of the government in the Stormans’ case is so blatant that people can’t ignore it. The law in Washington is the only one of its kind in the country; all other 49 states permit pharmacists to refer patients for a wide variety of reasons, including conscience-based reasons. In these rules, the Washington government is essentially saying that a whole group of people (conscientious objectors to abortion) don’t have equal rights—a practice known here in America as “discrimination,” by the way.

The 38 professional pharmacist organizations get this. Their brief says, “The Ninth Circuit’s decision effectively eliminated pharmacists’ right not to participate in actions they conscientiously oppose, even thought a ‘right of conscience’ has always been integral to the ethical practice of pharmacy” (and all of medicine, for that matter). The Washington State government is cloaking their maneuver in rhetoric of protecting “patients’ rights,” but the APA and the other pharmacist organizations see through it:

“This need not be a battle between pharmacists’ right of conscience and patients’ right of access… the time-honored practice of facilitated referral respects both the right of conscience and the right of access… [The state’s] “sky-is-falling scenario of patients in rural communities having zero access to emergency contraceptives without Washington’s rule is highly implausible – yet ironically is a scenario that would be more likely if independent pharmacies in rural communities are force to close in the face of invasive regulation.”

This brief nails it. The government isn’t truly concerned about patients’ right of access (just like Planned Parenthood isn’t actually concerned about women’s health). It’s concerned about making sure that dissent, even dissent as simple as referring a patient elsewhere for religious reasons when they are referred for all kinds of other reasons, is illegal.

Line this case up with the other attacks on conscience we see across America—the ACLU’s efforts to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions, the State of California’s mandate that crisis pregnancy centers advertise for abortion clinics and that churches cover elective abortions in their healthcare plans—and a view of a whole battlefront unfolds. These aren’t isolated incidents. They are skirmishes in an all-out war on freedom of conscience.

The massive outpouring of support for the Stormans from a wide variety of groups and individuals is deeply encouraging, because it indicates that people—people from across the spectrum of opinion—are starting to see how attacks on conscience that target Christians ultimately threaten all Americans. 

Jane Scharl

Contributing Writer

Jane Scharl has written for National Review Online, Comment Magazine, and The Intercollegiate Review.

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