Pharmacists' challenge to contraception rule heard in court

DEAN OLSEN

SPRINGFIELD -- A state rule requiring pharmacists to dispense emergency contraception threatens the future of their businesses, two pro-life pharmacy owners testified in Thursday.

Luke Vander Bleek of Morrison and Glenn Kosirog of Wheaton told Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Belz they worry that the state eventually will force them to close because they refuse to stock or help patients obtain Plan B, Ella and other forms of emergency contraception.

“There is a cloud over my business,” said Kosirog, 51, who owns a Chicago pharmacy. Kosirog said he is a Christian and believes life begins at conception.

Belz is expected to rule in about a month on Kosirog and Vander Bleek’s claims that the rule violates their rights of religious expression guaranteed by state law and the U.S. Constitution.

They said emergency conception, which is used after unprotected sex to prevent unplanned pregnancy, can cause what they consider an abortion because it can stop a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman’s uterus.

“There ought to be room for me as a pharmacist to be able to step away from certain therapies that I’ve come to know as being wrong,” said Vander Bleek, 47, a Catholic.

‘Morning after’ pill

The medicine, sometimes called the “morning after” pill, isn’t the same as the “abortion pill,” which causes an implanted embryo to dislodge.

Health officials say emergency contraception, which contains concentrated doses of the compounds in regular birth-control pills, works primarily by delaying an unfertilized egg from being released into a woman’s fallopian tube. However, they also say emergency contraception, like regular birth control pills, sometimes can alter the lining of the uterus so a fertilized egg fails to implant.

Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2005 instituted a rule threatening pharmacies with discipline if pharmacists refuse to dispense Plan B. Kosirog and Vander Bleek, who owns pharmacies in Morrison, Sycamore and Genoa, have been fighting the rule since.

Kosirog and Vander Bleek said they not only don’t want to stock emergency contraception, they don’t believe they should be forced to help customers obtain it elsewhere. In both their cases, patients can get Plan B from other nearby pharmacies, they said.

New rule worse?

The two said they draw a distinction between emergency contraception and regular birth control pills, which Vander Bleek dispenses. Kosirog said he stopped selling birth control pills a month ago so his patients couldn’t try to take more than the prescribed number in order to use them as emergency contraception.

The pharmacists’ lawyer, Mark Rienzi, said a modified version of the state rule, adopted in 2010, expanded its provisions to over-the-counter emergency contraception. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2005 made morning-after pills available without prescriptions to people 17 and older.

The new state rule prohibits pharmacies from citing moral objections for declining to dispense any drug approved by the FDA, Kosirog said. If Illinois ever legalizes physician-assisted suicide, he said, pharmacies would have to hand out those drugs as well.

Brent Adams, director of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, said Illinois citizens need access to a variety of medicines sometimes considered controversial, including emergency contraception, psychotropic drugs and drugs to prevent HIV transmission.

A pharmacy owner’s religious beliefs “shouldn’t trump” a patient’s need for legal medicine, Adams said.

Dean Olsen can be reached at (217) 788-1543.

Emergency contraception court fight

*The situation: Since 2005, the state has required owners of Illinois pharmacies to dispense emergency contraception upon request or help patients obtain the medicine if it’s not in stock. The rule governing the issue was expanded in 2010 to include, with certain exceptions but not religious exceptions, all drugs approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

*At issue: Pharmacy owners who oppose abortion and believe that emergency contraception can prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in a woman’s uterus say they have the right to decline to fill prescriptions or otherwise dispense emergency contraception. State officials say pharmacy owners have no such “right of conscience.”

*What’s next: Sangamon County Circuit Judge John Belz is expected to rule on the pharmacy owners’ challenge to the state rule within about a month. The ruling could be appealed by either side.