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Pharmacies' Duty to Dispense Emergency Contraception: A Discussion of Religious Liberty

Yang, Y. Tony ScD, LLM; Sawicki, Nadia N. JD, MBioethics

doi: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000001894
Contents: Current Commentary

In a recent battle between reproductive rights and religious freedom, the U.S. Supreme Court, by a five to three vote, declined to review an appeal in Stormans, Inc v Wiesman, a case brought by a Washington state pharmacy owner and two pharmacists who held religious objections to emergency contraception. These petitioners brought a constitutional challenge to Washington state regulations that required pharmacies to dispense all lawfully prescribed pharmaceuticals. In 2015, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that these regulations did not violate the Constitution. The Ninth Circuit confirmed that pharmacies must comply with state regulations requiring access to drugs even if the owners of the pharmacies hold religious objections to the provision of certain types of drugs—here, emergency contraception. The pharmacy owners appealed this ruling, and in 2016, the Supreme Court declined to review the case, effectively leaving the lower court ruling in place. This article analyzes the Stormans case, the difference between it and a seemingly similar case regarding contraceptive access decided by the Supreme Court in 2014, the effects of the Stormans ruling on emergency contraception access in Washington state as well as the ruling's potential implications for public health.

Washington state pharmacies must comply with state regulations requiring timely patient access to all pharmaceuticals, including emergency contraception, despite religious objections held by the pharmacies' owners.

Department of Health Administration and Policy, George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia; and the Beazley Institute for Health Law and Policy, Loyola University Chicago School of Law, Chicago, Illinois.

Corresponding author: Y. Tony Yang, ScD, LLM, Department of Health Administration and Policy, George Mason University, MS: 1J3, 4400 University Drive, Fairfax, VA 22030; email:

Financial Disclosure The authors did not report any potential conflicts of interest.

The authors thank Holly Fernandez Lynch, JD, MBioethics (Harvard Law School) for her helpful comments on an earlier draft of this perspective.

Each author has indicated that he or she has met the journal's requirements for authorship.

© 2017 by The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Published by Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.