A Prescription for Injustice
by Rhonda Mesler and Margo Thelen
The Stormans family has not stood alone in its opposition to changes in Washington state pharmaceutical regulations— changes that have disallowed the long-recognized right of pharmacists to refer customers who request a product (like the abortifacient Plan B) that violates their conscience. Two Christian pharmacists from other parts of the state joined the family in its lawsuit. They won in district court, but in July 2015 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit overturned that decision. Unless the U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear their appeal, the loss will require them to leave their profession or move out of state.
Together, the two pharmacists have more than 66 years in pharmacy practice. Rhonda Mesler has been working in pharmacies for 23 years, the last 10 as a manager in central Washington. Margo Thelen has been a pharmacist for 43 years, the last 13 in Washington. As pharmacists, both have long been free to refer patients to other pharmacies for products their own store doesn’t stock—whether the reason for not stocking is a matter of business, or conscience. A 2006 decision by the state’s Board of Pharmacy changed that —eliminating referrals based on conscience.
For each of us, the Board of Pharmacy’s decision had life-changing implications that rocked us to our core. No longer would we be able to decline to fill a prescription for Plan B and refer a patient based on our religious beliefs about human life. The government was going to force us to stock and dispense early abortifacient drugs against our professional judgment and religious convictions—forcing us to choose between our deepest beliefs and the profession we love.
Faced with that ultimatum, we felt we had little choice but to join the Stormans and Alliance Defending Freedom in filing suit against the state. We knew we could never take on the state by ourselves. We each needed someone to stand beside us and lead us through all the legal turmoil, and ADF was there. We needed encouragement and inspiration, and the Stormans offered both.
[The other side's] attorneys were invasive in their questions and contemptuous in their tone, and clearly had no idea what it means to be a pharmacist in a small town."
Two things have amazed us both as we’ve gone through the experience of this nine-year legal fight. One is the sheer hostility of those on the other side of this question. Any hope we had that our opponents might be willing to respect us as women of principle, and take into consideration the real nature of the kind of work we do and the setting in which we do it, went out the window at the first deposition. Their attorneys were invasive in their questions and contemptuous in their tone, and clearly had no idea what it means to be a pharmacist in a small town.
A small-town druggist comes to know her patients very, very well. Both of us have delivered medications on our own, after hours, and stayed long after closing time answering questions and doing research for our customers. Rhonda has visited customers in their hospital rooms and nursing homes. She and her husband have helped customers move, fed their cats, and mowed their lawns, as the needs arose. They even adopted the young daughter of a customer who could no longer care for her. Margo learned Spanish to better explain medications to her Hispanic customers, and took immunization training so she could administer flu shots. She spends hours on the phone, cajoling doctors for more affordable options for the poorer customers. Sometimes she just sits for a few minutes with an elderly customer, listening, consoling, offering informal advice.
For us, none of this is going “above and beyond the call.” This is the call, if you have a heart for the people you serve. And that makes it all the harder when, in a deposition, or on the witness stand, the other side’s attorneys want to suggest that we have no compassion for our customers. In particular, Planned Parenthood and its attorneys like to portray anyone with a religious objection to Plan B as being harsh and vindictive and treating Plan B customers with disrespect. In fact, both of us have been in those shoes. We know all too well what it’s like to be pregnant and not married, embarrassed and scared and wondering what to do.
As a teenager, Rhonda had to face her parents and a future with an unplanned child. Ultimately, she put the baby up for adoption. Margo was 18 when she became pregnant with her first child, and was sent by her mother to talk to a doctor whom she hoped would convince her daughter to have an abortion.
Instead, she remembers, the doctor held up his thumb and forefinger, just a scant quarter-inch apart. “That tiny being, no matter how small it is, is alive and moving,” he said. Margo instantly determined to keep the child in her womb.
Given those experiences, neither of us would ever want to judge or criticize anyone who comes into our store asking for the Plan B “morning after” abortion pill. We graciously offer to direct them to any of the dozens of other nearby pharmacies that offer the medication. We don’t want to hurt or offend any customer—we just don’t want to be part of taking a life.
"None of this is going ‘above and beyond the call.’ This is the call, if you have a heart for the people you serve.
Margo lost her job almost immediately when the board changed its rules about conscience referrals. Although a kind friend secured her a job at a hospital in another town, the transition meant saying goodbye to all the customers she had served so long. It also meant a $17,000 pay cut, later shifts, a long commute, and no guarantees.
And while Rhonda’s employers have been supportive of her beliefs, they’ve also made it clear that, ultimately, they’ll have to abide by the law’s final decision on conscience referrals. Rhonda is the primary breadwinner in her family. If the court ultimately rules against her, she will be forced to take another job in another state, facing a drastic change of lifestyle and leaving her home, her extended family, and her customer friends behind.
But no matter what happens, we are committed to the belief that life is sacred, and neither of us will have any part in contributing to the death of a child in the womb. The legal fight to defend our right to follow our conscience has been long, often painful, sometimes very difficult. But we have been blessed with the opportunity to stand for Him, and to stand alongside each other and the Stormans. We wouldn’t change that. And we trust our God to prescribe what is best for us, in the months and years to come.