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ST. LOUIS — Pharmacist Rich Quayle makes no apologies for refusing to dispense emergency contraception.

It's a stand that cost him his $100,000-a-year job at a Walgreen Co. pharmacy in Madison County when he refused to sign a pledge for his employer promising to dispense the medicine, sold as Plan B, in accordance with a new state rule.

Quayle and two other Metro East pharmacists were put on indefinite unpaid leave last month by Walgreen after they cited religious and ethical grounds for balking at the rule they say wrongly forces them to dispense the morning-after pill.

Proponents of the rule — made permanent by Gov. Rod Blagojevich in August — say it guarantees women's access to legal birth control.

"People try to paint us as being religious zealots," Quayle, 54, said from his home in Highland. "I have firm religious beliefs, and I choose not to destroy a human being. I don't think that's necessarily a bad moral stance to take."

The rule requires pharmacies that sell federally approved contraceptives to fill prescriptions for emergency birth control "without delay" if they have the medication in stock. If the contraceptive is not in stock, the pharmacy must order it or transfer the prescription to another pharmacy of the patient's choice. If a pharmacist won't fill the prescription because of a moral objection, another pharmacist must be available there to fill it.

Tracy Fischman, vice president for public policy at Planned Parenthood in the Chicago area, said the rule has curbed what she said was frequent refusal by pharmacists to fill prescriptions for emergency contraception.

"We do believe that it's absolutely critical that pharmacies have systems that ensure that women can get prescriptions filled without discrimination and without delay. That is what this rule does," she said.

Last month, Deerfield-based Walgreen asked its pharmacists to pledge in writing to fill such prescriptions. The company suspended Quayle and three colleagues on Nov. 28 when they refused to sign. One of those pharmacists later agreed to dispense the contraceptives and has since returned to work.

Walgreen spokeswoman Tiffani Bruce said the company had no choice but to discipline the pharmacists because violating the rule could jeopardize the licenses of the pharmacies where they worked and of the sites' chief pharmacists.

The American Center for Law and Justice, a group founded by evangelist Pat Robertson, has taken up the case of the three. In a recent filing with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in St. Louis, the Washington D.C.-based group accused Walgreen of religious discrimination by "effectively firing" the pharmacists.

The ACLJ has said a state or federal lawsuit is likely if Walgreen doesn't reinstate the pharmacists. Several lawsuits have been filed on behalf of pharmacists and pharmacy owners who oppose the rule.

For Quayle and others who believe that life begins at conception, the morning-after pill is little different from an abortion. The high dose of regular birth control can prevent fertilization or block a fertilized egg from attaching to the womb. "The media has painted us as a bunch of rogues and uncaring individuals, and that couldn't be farther from the truth," said Quayle.

who is a Baptist.

"I like helping people. But I'm not there to kill anybody, and I won't do it."

Quayle believes his refusal to follow the rule is protected by the Illinois Health Care Right of Conscience Act, which he says protects workers from being forced to act contrary to their conscience.

"If the Right of Conscience law means nothing and religious beliefs mean nothing, we're in a lot of trouble," said Quayle, who is looking for a new job.

Blagojevich spokeswoman Abby Ottenhoff said the "right of conscience does not apply to pharmacists."

"In general, the aim was to give medical professionals who may be in a position to perform an abortion the right to abstain from doing so. We fully support that right, but a pharmacist is not asked to perform abortions. He's asked to fill prescriptions," she said.

Pharmacies don't have to comply with the state rule if they don't stock any contraceptives.

Quayle said he has no qualms about dispensing regular birth-control pills, but the morning-after pill, he says, "is not your typical birth control."

"If you prevent the egg from implanting in the uterus you prevent that from becoming a human being," he said. "If I give her this medication, that medication is designed to eliminate one of those lives, and that's a position I choose not to participate in."

On the Net

Walgreen Co., http://www.walgreens

American Center for Law and Justice, http://www.aclj.org

Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, http://www.eeoc.gov

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