Andrea Anderson says she asked the pharmacist at her drugstore in north central Minnesota more than once why he couldn't fill her prescription for emergency contraception.
The 39-year-old mother of five in McGregor, Minn., initially thought the man on the phone was concerned that the medication would not interact well with her allergy and asthma medication. But she said the pharmacist at Thrifty White kept insisting it was a matter of his own discomfort.
"I then realized what was happening: He was refusing to fill my prescription for emergency contraception because he did not believe in it," Anderson said Tuesday after filing a lawsuit against the Thrifty White and a separate CVS Pharmacy in Aitkin, Minn., which she said also illegally kept her from accessing the drug.
The suit, filed in Aitkin County District Court, alleges that the McGregor Thrifty White as well as a CVS pharmacy in nearby Aitkin discriminated against Anderson based on sex. It also contends that denying her service based on pregnancy-related health care needs violated the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
The case is the latest salvo in the national abortion debate, one that has played out not only in clinics and hospitals but also in drugstores where some pharmacists have sought the right to refuse filling prescriptions such as the controversial "morning-after" pill that can prevent conception if taken soon after unprotected sex.
The Minnesota Board of Pharmacy created an exception for dispensing emergency contraception in 1999, letting pharmacists decline to fill such prescriptions only if they provide an alternative for the patient. Anderson alleges that the pharmacies did not follow that protocol.
Filed by the St. Paul legal nonprofit Gender Justice, Anderson's lawsuit names Thrifty White pharmacist George Badeaux and an unnamed CVS pharmacist. Jess Braverman, legal director for Gender Justice, said Tuesday that Anderson has not been in touch with representatives from CVS but that Matt Hutera, owner of the Thrifty White pharmacy, has since sent Anderson a gift card for gas that she has refused to use.
According to Anderson, Hutera told her that Badeaux, also a local church pastor, had previously refused to fill prescriptions based on his personal beliefs. Hutera told her that the Thrifty White did not have an official policy but that he had informed Badeaux that he must make sure that prescriptions got filled.
Reached by phone Tuesday, a manager at the McGregor Thrifty White declined to comment on the lawsuit. A spokesperson for CVS said the pharmacy is committed to providing access to emergency contraception and that it will investigate Anderson's complaint.
Anderson, a licensed foster parent, received a prescription for the emergency contraceptive in January after a experiencing a condom failure with her long-term partner. Concluding that she was not prepared for another pregnancy, Anderson soon received a prescription for the drug Ella from her health provider.
Contraceptive drugs have long been available on shelves in Minnesota drugstores, even as faith-based groups have sought to carve out a legal "conscience" exception protecting pharmacists with moral or religious objections.
Some abortion opponents such as the Minnesota Family Council consider Ella to be an abortion pill, citing research that suggests the pill may work by preventing implantation of a fertilized egg. John Helmberger, CEO of the Minnesota Family Council, said Minnesota's constitution protects pharmacists who object to prescribing such medication.
But other groups, like Planned Parenthood, say calling Ella an "abortion pill" is misinformation that distorts the pill's role as a means to prevent, not end, a pregnancy. "Preventing a pregnancy is a personal decision and no one has the right to interfere with that decision," said Jennifer Aulwes, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood North Central States.
Although the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy created a way for pharmacists to decline to fill prescriptions that violate their ethics, they must provide alternative ways for customers to obtain their prescriptions. Generally, pharmacists must ensure that patients are able to access the medication quickly.
Anderson alleges that Badeaux only told her about other ways in which she would be unable to get her prescription.
"I can't help but wonder about other women who may be turned away," Anderson said Tuesday. "What if they accept the pharmacist's decision and don't realize that this behavior is wrong? What if they have no other choice? Not everyone has the means or ability to drive hundreds of miles to get a prescription filled."