Pharmacists who believe "morning-after" birth control pills are tantamount to abortion can't stand in the way of a patient's right to the drugs, regulators in the U.S. state of Washington have decided.
In a unanimous vote Thursday, the state Board of Pharmacy ruled that drug stores have a duty to fill lawful prescriptions despite an individual pharmacist's personal objections to any particular medication.
Pharmacists or drug stores that violate the rules could face discipline from the board, which has the power to revoke state licenses.
The Washington State Catholic Conference and Human Life Washington, an anti-abortion group, predicted a court challenge, saying the rule wrongly forces pharmacists to administer medical treatments they consider immoral.
"I don't think pharmacists who adhere to traditional moral precepts are going to allow their conscience to be overrun by the Board of Pharmacy," said Dan Kennedy, Human Life's chief executive.
Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Amy Luftig said the ruling "ensures that men and women will have access to their health care."
"It also respects a pharmacist's personal beliefs, so long as that doesn't come before a patient's needs," she said.
Sold as Plan B, emergency contraception is a high dose of the drug found in many regular birth-control pills. It can lower the risk of pregnancy by as much as 89 percent if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex.
Some critics consider the pill related to abortion, although it is different from the abortion pill RU-486 and has no effect on women who already are pregnant.
The federal Food and Drug Administration made the morning-after pill available over the counter to adults in August.
Under the new state rule, pharmacists with personal objections to a drug could opt out by getting a co-worker to fill an order. But that would only apply if the patient is able to get the prescription in the same pharmacy visit.
Pharmacies would be required to order new supplies of a drug if a patient asks for something that is not in stock.
Pharmacists are also forbidden to destroy a prescription or harass patients, rules that were prompted by complaints from Washingtonians, chairwoman Rebecca Hille said.
The rule will take effect in mid-June, Health Department spokesman Jeff Smith said.