Here Today, Gone Tomorrow: Conscience Protection in Illinois

Tim Bradley  

Pharmacists Luke Vander Bleek and Glenn Kosirog faced a bleak situation in the summer of 2005: they either had to stock and dispense abortifacients or close up their shops.


Then-Governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich had issued an executive rule on April 1 requiring pharmacists to assist customers in obtaining emergency contraceptives upon request and without delay. Herein lies the dilemma: Vander Bleek and Kosirog hold that human life begins at conception, and that drug regimens such as Plan B act to prevent the implantation in the womb of a new, unique member of the human species, thus causing death. They could not, in good conscience, sell such drugs to their customers.


Luckily for the pharmacists, existing state law—the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act—protected them from such governmental coercion. When Vander Bleek and Kosirog took their case to state court, they were granted relief and Blagojevich’s rule was struck down as in violation of the law of Illinois.


If the pharmacists were to bring their case before a court in Illinois today, however, their prospects would be far dimmer, as the law which protected them in 2005 has now been amended.


Governor Bruce Rauner signed Senate Bill 1564 into law on July 29. The law amends the existing Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act so that doctors in Illinois will now be forced to refer patients for abortions even if they have conscience-based objections to the practice, and pharmacists may be required to either sell abortifacients or, if they refuse to do so, refer customers to other pharmacists who will provide them.


Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner (R)

Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner (R)


Granted, the law does not coerce doctors into performing abortions themselves; nor does it compel pharmacists to stock and dispense emergency contraceptives. It does, however, require these health care professionals to be complicit in the practice of abortion, even if they have conscience-based objections to the taking of innocent human life in the womb. Indeed, the amended law specifically targets those with conscience-based objections to abortion.


The amendment requires in part that all health care facilities shall implement protocols to ensure that patients’ health and access to desired services or products will not be impaired on account of a provider’s conscience-based objection.


In practice, the new protocols will require health care professionals to violate their consciences. “When a health care facility, physician, or health care personnel is unable to permit, perform, or participate in a health care service … because the health care service is contrary to the conscience of the health care facility, physician, or health care personnel,” then the patient must either receive the requested service from another professional in the facility or be referred to someone who will provide the service, according to the amended law.


The mandated referrals are governed by this paragraph: upon request of the patient, the health care facility or personnel with a conscience-based objection to the service in question “shall: (i) refer the patient to, or (ii) transfer the patient to, or (iii) provide in writing information to the patient about other health care providers who they reasonably believe may offer the health care service the health care facility, physician, or health personnel refuses to permit, perform, or participate in because of a conscience-based objection.”


Granted, things could be worse for health care personnel under the new law. The amendment does not go so far as an existing rule in Washington state, for example, which requires pharmacists to stock and dispense emergency contraceptives themselves. A challenge to that state law was recently refused a hearing by the Supreme Court, in Stormans v. Wiesman.


Nevertheless, the new Illinois law effectively coerces speech on the part of health care personnel, and implicates them in cooperation with practices to which they may have deeply held religious- or conscience-based objections.  To the objectors, the health care “service” being sought is contrary to the requestor’s well-being and to the value of individual human life—it is therefore not a health service at all.


Laws such as this one are enforced under the guise of ensuring ease of access to abortion and abortion-related services for women of reproductive age. But these laws rarely address a documented inability to find such services (for example, witness the more than 30 pharmacies in Washington state that offer emergency contraceptives and are within five miles of Ralph’s Thriftway, the objecting pharmacy in Stormans). These laws are in actuality aimed at stamping out all dissent to the new orthodoxy in the arena of sex and reproduction.


By compelling health care personnel to violate their consciences and the long-standing norms of the medical profession, such as to “first, do no harm,” the law that Governor Rauner has signed will serve to hurt all involved: good and able medical professionals may be forced to leave their practices rather than violating their consciences, and the patients they serve will suffer as a result.


Several groups, such as Alliance Defending Freedom, have already indicated they will challenge the new law. The battle over the most basic conscience protections continues to intensify.


Tim Bradley is a research associate at the Charlotte Lozier Institute.


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