Before Rod Blagojevich was a reality show star or the broker of Barack Obama’s Senate seat, he made national news for another reason. As governor, he ordered that pharmacies dispense the controversial morning-after pill. Penalties for those not doing so ranged from a fine to losing their licenses to dispense drugs.
In 2005, he announced the emergency rule at a press conference, flanked by the heads of NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and other abortion leaders. If anyone questioned whether the order was about strong-arm abortion politics, this gathtering settled that.
Four pharmacists were immediately put on unpaid leave from Walgreens because of the draconian order. They had not kept prescriptions from being filled by other pharmacists, but didn’t want to dispense the drug themselves.
Because the morning-after pill can prohibit an embryo from implanting, and thus surviving, Luke Vander Bleek considered it an abortion drug. The owner of four pharmacies in the Chicago area challenged Blagojevich’s order. He sued and was a key witness in a congressional hearing on Blago’s order. As he testified, the rule “creates an environment in Illinois whereby a person holding deep moral convictions concerning the unborn cannot own and operate a licensed pharmacy.”
Kathy Valente, then-Concerned Women for America of Illinois state director, noted, “Shutting down businesses for political reasons is a classic example of tyranny. This kind of government arrogance threatens our constitutional liberties and must be stopped.”
The governor debated Luke’s attorney on CNN. In classic Blagojevich style, he blustered that pharmacists are like “vending machines.” If they won’t hand over controversial drugs to any customer that asks, then they should find another profession. At the time, this seared in my memory for its callous dismissal of the fundamental right of conscience and of the necessity—especially for customers—for pharmacists to professionally apply their knowledge of drugs.
Fast-forward to April 2011. Blagojevich has been impeached and now so has his morning-after pill dictate. An Illinois Circuit Court has enjoined the order, finding that it violates the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act, the Illinois Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and the First Amendment’s protection of the “free exercise of religion.”
The decision in Morr-Fitz, Inc. v. Blagojevich finds:
“The Rule violated Plaintiff’s rights under the [Illinois Health Care Right of] Conscience Act, which was designed to forbid the government from doing what it aims here: coercing individuals or entities to provide health care services that violate their beliefs. The distribution of contraceptives by pharmacists and pharmacies clearly falls within the reach of the Act. … The government cannot pressure them to violate their beliefs.”
The right of health care providers to follow the Hippocratic Oath and “do no harm” as they exercise their religious freedom has been a point of contention for abortion groups. They ramped up their efforts to treat providers like “vending machines” after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the morning-after pill.
In one case, Planned Parenthood tried to recruit girls to file accusations against pharmacists who decline to dispense the drug.
After the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynocologists (ACOG), a trade association, released “guidelines” that required doctors to perform, or refer women for, abortions, the Bush administration stepped in to clarify federal law that protects health providers’ right of conscience. Its carefully constructed regulations, which Concerned Women for America supported, were quickly suspended by the Obama administration (even before he had a secretary of Health and Human Services in place), then replaced with a weaker version.
With the FDA’s approval of Ella, a drug that is similar to the abortion drug RU-486 but marketed as a morning-after pill, the FDA made life even more difficult for conscientious pharmacists.
The battle over protecting health providers’ right of conscience is not over. But this court ruling is a significant victory for constitutional rights and religious freedom. Let’s hope President Obama’s attempts to push abortion by weakening the right of conscience will find the same fate at his fellow Chicago politician’s.