Pro-Life Pharmacists Say Beliefs Before Business

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Glenn Kosirog is unique in this age of big-name pharmacy chains.  Not far from downtown Chicago he runs an old-fashioned drugstore, complete with antique signage and Fannie May candies.

"I've been here all my life.  I love this job.  I know most of my customers.  I don't want to leave," he explained.

But Kosirog and fellow plaintiff Luke Vander Bleek could be forced to shut down their pharmacies.  The two pharmacists refuse to stock or dispense Plan B, the morning-after pill.

The state's Health Care Right of Conscience Act protects such refusals, but in 2005, Gov. Rod Blagojevich issued an executive order requiring them to dispense the pill or lose their license.  So for the last four years, Kosirog and Vander Bleek have been locked in a legal battle with the state, hinging on their conscience rights versus patient rights. 

In April, they won a small victory.  The Circuit Court in Springfield, Ill., issued a temporary restraining order against the Governor of Illinois and state officials, ordering them not to enforce the executive order.

A Legal or Moral Obligation?

For pro-life pharmacists, the difficulty centers around the drug known commercially as Plan B.  It's designed to prevent ovulation and fertilization.  But it can also prevent the implantation of a fertilized egg to the uterus.  The implantation is what concerns many pro-life pharmacists.

"These pharmacists are not trying to stop any physician from giving it out,"  said their attorney Mark Rienzi, "They're not trying to stop any woman who wants to take the drug from taking the drug.  They're just saying, 'I', in good conscience, can't be a part of it.  I can't sell that drug.  Please go down the street.'"

But pro-choice groups say going down the street isn't always easy, especially for low-income and rural women.  Also, Plan B is time-sensitive.  Women must take it within three days of unprotected sex, and the sooner the better.

For customers of Kosirog's pharmacy who want Plan B, the nearest pharmacy is just blocks away.  But Vander Bleek's pharmacy in rural Morrison is the only one in town.  The nearest pharmacy is 10 miles away.

"I don't make it my business to know who stocks it or who dispenses it," said Vander Bleek.  "But I do know from my reading that most of the chain drug stores haven't had any issue with it."

Making the Case for Women's Rights

Groups like the National Women's Law Center are tracking pharmacists like Vander Bleek and Kosirog with their Pharmacy Refusal Project.  When it comes to Plan B, they say women can easily become the victims.

"Women are sometimes humiliated, yelled at, proselytized to and otherwise have to leave the pharmacy humiliated without their prescription filled," said Judy Waxman, Vice President of Health and Reproductive Rights.  The center helps women who have been denied Plan B or regular contraception and educates the public on the issue.

In the case of Vander Bleek and Kosirog, where they refuse to dispense or stock Plan B, Waxman says clear signage is key.

"If they're not providing any contraceptive at all, and the public knows that--well, that's fine," she said.  "But to have people come into the pharmacy on false pretenses that they can get their prescription filled and then not be able to--that's a problem for the patient."

Saying no to a patient means diplomacy for pro-life pharmacists.

"We respectfully and compassionately and confidentially return the prescription to the patient," says Vander Bleek, "and just inform them that we don't stock it and don't order the product."

"I've never had anyone get upset with me," Kosirog recalled. "They're very scared, the young ladies at that point, and they're just wanting to get it over with."

Beliefs Before Business

Both Kosirog and Vander Bleek acknowledge that not everyone in their community agrees with them.  But there's no turning back for these two pharmacy owners.

Kosirog explains the discussion he had with his wife.

"She said 'the line is in the sand--what have we got to lose?  We lose our business?  It's not worth it.'  And I sleep real good at night, real good at night--my wife can tell you," he said.

"If the government says that Luke Vander Bleek can't enter his pharmacy without a moral conscience and do what my heart and the Spirit tells me to do with good conscience--I won't be a pharmacist anymore in this state," Vander Bleek added.

If they lose this battle, both men are prepared to give up their profession or move to a more friendly state.  But most likely, their case will drag on for several more years.

So for now, they continue to sleep well and enjoy the communities where they feel called. 

"The real pleasure is to see the outcome," Vander Bleek said about his work.  "To see people recover, do better, manage their health and grow old."

*Originally aired May 25, 2009

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