A Southern Illinois abortion foe, backed by her local Catholic diocese, is asking consumers to pull their prescriptions from Walgreens until four pharmacists, on unpaid leave for refusing to agree to fill orders for the morning-after contraceptive pill, are reinstated.

Ann Polka, manager for the Belleville Diocese’s Project Rachel, a post-abortion healing program, is also asking regional residents to refrain from doing other shopping at the chain’s stores.

“This is an unjust action,” Polka told the Belleville, Illinois, News-Democrat. “They are being let go because they couldn’t in good conscience dispense the drugs.”

At issue is the Plan B morning-after contraceptive – not to be confused with RU486, the abortion pill used to terminate later-term pregnancies. Plan B contraceptives are essentially very high, multiple dosages of birth-control pills taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex to prevent ovulation or implantation. If ovulation is prevented, no egg is fertilized and no pregnancy occurs. But if ovulation has taken place and the egg is fertilized, the morning-after pill works to block implantation by the early embryo in the mother’s womb. It is aborted, making dispensing prescriptions for the pill a matter of conscience for pro-life pharmacists.

Walgreens, in a statement following last Monday’s suspensions, defended its action saying the company’s policy is consistent with an Illinois state rule mandating pharmacists fill prescriptions without delay.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich filed an emergency rule April 1 requiring pharmacies to honor all Food and Drug Administration-approved contraception prescriptions. The rule is the only one of its kind in the U.S. and became permanent on Aug. 1.

“If a woman has a prescription for contraceptives, they ought to be filling that,” Blagojevich told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, adding that the pharmacists’ suspensions were unfortunate but not as important as protecting women’s rights.

“This (rule) is unjustly imposed on Illinois by Rod Blagojevich,” Polka said. “It’s puzzling to me that pharmacists do not have a discretionary power.”

“[Pharmacists] certainly have the right to their personal opinions, but that cannot get in the way of a woman’s right to get the care that her doctor has prescribed for her,” Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said. “If it is approved by the FDA and approved by a doctor, it is not a pharmacist’s place to deny access.”

Ottenhoff noted the law does provide an exception – pharmacies can either sell the Plan B pill along with any other contraceptives they offer or they can refuse to sell any contraceptives at all.

“It’s up to the pharmacy, how they decide to comply with the rule,” she said. “In this case, Walgreens did what they felt they needed to do to comply with the law in Illinois.”

Pharmacists opposed to dispensing the pill are free to apply for positions at pharmacies making the later choice – or move out of state.

John Menges, one of the four Illinois pharmacists dismissed last week for refusing to sign a Walgreens pledge to dispense the pill, may have to make that choice. Thus far, Walgreens hasn’t offered him a position across the Mississippi River in neighboring Missouri where pharmacists’ right to conscience is recognized, but three Illinois pharmacies have contacted him.

Menges, 39, believes the FDA erred in classifying Plan B as an oral contraceptive since it acts, in at least some cases, as an abortifacient – it prevents birth rather than pregnancy. He, along with five other Southern Illinois pharmacists, are suing Illinois to end the Blagojevich rule.

Polka has marshaled the support of her diocese for the Walgreens boycott. An announcement will go out to all parishes in the church’s next monthly mailing.

“These pharmacists are very courageous,” she said. “We as Catholic Christians need to stand behind this.”

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