CHICAGO, April 1 -- Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich (D) issued an emergency rule Friday that requires pharmacies to accept and fill prescriptions for contraceptives without delay, after a growing number of complaints nationwide that some pharmacists are refusing to dispense birth control pills and the "morning-after" pill.
He also established a toll-free number that residents can call to report refusals by pharmacies.
Reproductive-rights groups heralded Blagojevich's action as the first statewide regulation to address the issue.
"We are hopeful that governors across the country will follow his lead," said Nancy Keenan, national president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
The rule takes effect immediately, although Blagojevich said it will later go through a review process to become permanent. It came in response to complaints that on Feb. 23, a pharmacist refused to fill prescriptions for two women at an Osco pharmacy in downtown Chicago. The governor joined reproductive rights groups in describing the refusals as part of a concerted push by conservative groups to decrease availability of contraceptives.
"It's not just in the Loop; this is happening all over the country," he said. "There's a pattern of this behavior. This is not just a coincidence, but part and parcel of a larger campaign."
Women in at least 12 states, including Wisconsin, Texas, North Carolina and California, have reported encountering pharmacists unwilling to fill their prescriptions.
"We've heard stories about them being turned away or referred to other pharmacies," said Karen Pearl, national president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. "And even more alarmingly, some women are being denied birth control and the pharmacist keeps their prescription. They are also being given moral lectures, religious lectures. Women are being told contraception is abortion, which it is not."
Fernando E. Grillo, director of the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation, said the new rule "clarifies a duty we believe has always existed." The agency has filed a formal complaint against the Chicago Osco pharmacy, which could result in a fine or license suspension.
Rachel Laser, senior counsel at the National Women's Law Center, noted that 45 states have conscience clauses that exempt doctors from performing abortions on moral grounds, but that only Arkansas, Mississippi, South Dakota and Georgia have laws or regulations permitting pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions.
There are no federal laws forcing pharmacies to fill all prescriptions.
At least 11 states are considering legislation that would allow pharmacists to deny prescriptions, and legislation has been proposed in California, Missouri and New Jersey that would protect a customer's ability to have prescriptions filled. North Carolina's pharmacist licensing board recently clarified its policy to prevent pharmacists from obstructing customers from getting prescriptions.
"There's a lot of pending action on all sides," said Judy Waxman, vice president of health and reproductive rights at the National Women's Law Center.