Christian conservatives have lost another battle in their fight against Obamacare and their efforts to prevent American citizens from obtaining legal medicine in a timely manner. On Thursday, a San Francisco Court of Appeals ruled that pharmacies in the state of Washington cannot refuse to deliver medicine to customers, even if doing so violates their religious beliefs.
This decision overturned a ruling on a case that was filed in 2007 by pharmacists at Ralph’s Thriftway, who objected to delivering birth control items, such as Plan B, to customers on religious grounds. Washington State permits an individual pharmacist to deny medicine to a customer as long as a co-worker can provide the service; however, they do not allow any religious exemptions from medicine delivery.
In 2012, the courts decided that such a requirement violated pharmacists’ right to religious freedom. But this decision was overturned on Thursday, when judges found that the rule requiring delivery was not discriminatory against religious beliefs, and that failure to observe the rule could harm local residents. Judge Susan Graber wrote: “The time taken to travel to another pharmacy, especially in rural areas where pharmacies are sparse, may reduce the efficacy of those drugs.”
Plan B, also known as the “morning after pill,” is an “emergency contraception,” which can be used to prevent pregnancy, and is effective up to 72 hours after sexual intercourse. However, the drug is more effective if taken within 24 hours, which means timely delivery can be a life-changer for some patients.
Religious conservatives object to the use of Plan B and similar drugs because they are thought to be tantamount to abortion. However, although such “abortion pills” do exist, Plan B is not one of them. It is intended to prevent a pregnancy from taking place, rather than terminate one that has already begun. The purpose of Plan B is to prevent ovulation or interfere with fertilization, and it is not until fertilization has successfully occurred that anyone would think that there was a living person.
Religious zealots may prefer to ignore the messy details of conception, but anyone who attempts to interfere with another person’s access to medical care should not. Associating Plan B with abortions simply disregards medical knowledge. In response, it is argued that although emergency contraception may not be intended to cause an abortion or miscarriage, it could have that effect.
However, it’s totally unreasonable to restrict access to a federally approved drug because it may have unintended effects that one finds morally objectionable. For instance, drug abuse is prohibited by some religions, and many pharmaceuticals, such as Oxycontin, are regularly abused, but the possibility of abuse does not give pharmacies the right to prevent access to such drugs once they have been prescribed.
Attorney General Bob Ferguson called the decision “a major victory for the people of Washington,” explaining that “decisions regarding medical care… are appropriately between a patient and his or her medical professionals.”
Nevertheless, the religious right is not taking the decision lying down. Kevin Stormans, president of the company that owns Ralph’s Thriftway, along with the conservative legal group, the “Alliance Defending Freedom,” have vowed, in the name of “freedom,” to continue their fight to use religious beliefs to restrict the freedom of others: “We will appeal this ruling,” says Kristen Waggoner of the Alliance Defending Freedom.
The fight could go all the way to the Supreme Court, where the issue of religious exemption from the law has been hotly contested since 2014’s “Hobby Lobby” decision, which gave limited rights to “closely held” corporations who refused to comply with the law on religious grounds. Indeed, in a similar case, a request for review has been filed with the Supreme Court on behalf of an order of Catholic nuns who run nursing homes, and object to providing birth control coverage to their employees.
As the crazed resistance to the Affordable Care Act continues, we should not expect such legal battles to quiet down any time soon.
Opinion columnist and former editor-in-chief of Occupy Democrats. He graduated from Bennington College with a Bachelor's degree in history and political science. He now focuses on advancing the cause of social justice and equality in America.