Ron Stephens is a devout Christian, a Republican state representative of Illinois, and the owner of one of only two pharmacies in the small town of Troy, Illinois. His religious beliefs have put him at odds with a new state law requiring pharmacists to fill all legal prescriptions, including those for the morning-after emergency contraceptive.
Stephani Cox is the director of patient services at the area Planned Parenthood in Springfield, Illinois.
STEPHENS: We have the Healthcare Providers Right of Conscience Act. We say that, just because you're a medical doctor, doesn't mean you have to quit being a doctor because you won't do abortions. If a woman presents herself to a doctor and says, "I want an abortion," he has the right to say no, because of the healthcare Right of Conscience Act. The same principle applies.
COX: No, I don't. I don't want this to come off as if I'm demonizing pharmacists. I'm not at all. The great majority of them are wonderful, caring, health team members. But pharmacists are not providers. The clause was written for physicians, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurse midwives who are providers of care. Pharmacists are members of the team, but they are not providers. Physicians and nurse practitioners are legally able to order medications. Pharmacists are not. Pharmacists are to dispense and so what gives them the right to get between my patient and me?
STEPHENS: We're not trying to overturn whether or not you can use Plan B. It's clear that in Illinois and every state in the union, Plan B is legal and can be prescribed and filled and taken. The question before the state of Illinois and before our governor is whether I have a right based on my religious belief, to conscientiously object. I think what the governor should do is back up, take a deep breath, quit having press conferences and talk about whether or not a healthcare professional has a right to invoke his conscious.
COX: It's the principle and the patient's right. Women should be able to space their children for health reasons, for financial reasons, for whatever reasons they want. This is, again, a legal drug, and it's validly ordered. There shouldn't be anyone getting in a womanís way. The governor has issued an executive rule that went into effect April 1st that requires all pharmacists to fill contraceptive prescriptions without delay. And there are some pharmacists that are quite upset about this.
STEPHENS: The slippery slope that we could be going down is, every time the state tries to infringe upon my religious beliefs, we have to stand up. Because first it is this, and then it is something else. I feel that this issue is not about a woman's right to choose. That slippery slope, we've decided in America, whether you like it or not, a woman has a right to an abortion. They have a right to seek the healthcare that they want. We've also decided that individuals have their own religious beliefs that they're allowed to have and not be violated by the state.
COX: What if a pharmacist suddenly thinks that he doesn't want to dispense blood pressure medicine, because he believes people should exercise and eat right? What if he doesn't think patients with AIDS should get their medication, because he views that as a moral sin? What if he doesn't think alcoholics should get medication, because they "brought it on themselves?" I mean where does it end?
STEPHENS: I don't believe this is just about a woman's right to choose. I do think it is about liberal versus conservative. That puts me in the minority in my state. This is not a George Bush state. I can tell you that the majority of the people in my district don't agree with me as it comes to whether I should dispense this medication or not. But they do agree with me that if it's my religious conviction, the state shouldn't force me to violate it.
COX: Emergency contraception? I don't think so. I really believe that it is going to go over-the-counter. There's no reason that it shouldn't be over-the-counter. Then this whole argument will be moot. It is clearly a perfect drug to be over-the-counter. The FDA's advisory committee voted 23 to 4 to make it over-the-counter, and then for what appears to be political reasons, the FDA did not approve it. But I really believe that it will become over-the-counter.