Her gynecologist told the 39-year-old mother of five she should take Ella, the prescription-only morning-after pill, and sent the prescription to the only pharmacy in McGregor, a very small town about 130 miles north of Minneapolis.
But when Anderson showed up at the Thrifty White Pharmacy to pick up the pill, she says the pharmacist told her he would not fill the prescription. The small-town pharmacy wasn’t out of stock or too far from a wholesaler to get the pill for Anderson. Instead, the pharmacist told her he wouldn’t sell her the emergency birth control pill because of a personal objection.
“He said, ‘I don’t feel comfortable; that goes against what I believe,’ ” Anderson told WCCO, “and all of a sudden it clicked.”
Anderson filed a lawsuit Monday in Minnesota’s 9th Judicial District Court alleging that pharmacist George Badeaux told her that he would not give her the morning-after pill because of his “beliefs,” a practice allowed by state regulations. As part of the lawsuit, Anderson, who is represented by a Minnesota nonprofit organization called Gender Justice, is suing Badeaux, Thrifty White and an unnamed CVS pharmacist, who also refused to provide the morning-after pill.
Thrifty White, CVS and Badeaux did not immediately return requests for comment.
Anderson and her partner of 10 years are foster parents who also have a biological child together. She said in her lawsuit the couple is not looking to have any more kids, which is why she called her doctor on Jan. 21 as soon as she realized her usual birth control had failed.
After the Thrifty White pharmacist rejected Anderson’s prescription, he told her not to go to a nearby pharmacy because the employees there also probably would refuse her request.
“He did not clarify what his beliefs were or why they interfered with his ability to perform his job as a medical professional,” the lawsuit said. But Anderson said the pharmacy’s owner, Matt Hutera, gave her more information.
Anderson said Hutera told her that Badeaux had refused to fill prescriptions based on his personal beliefs before, and let her know that the pharmacist was also a pastor at a local church, the lawsuit said.
Anderson did not give up. She drove about 20 miles to a CVS pharmacy in a neighboring town, where another pharmacist declined to fill her prescription. Anderson said that pharmacist, who is not named in the suit, told her the CVS pharmacy did not have Ella in stock and could not get it from a wholesale provider in time for her to take the pill, which must be taken within five days of unprotected sex.
The CVS pharmacist allegedly called a Walgreens pharmacy more than 50 miles away from Anderson’s home but told the desperate mother that location did not have the pill either.
Anderson decided to ring the Walgreens herself. Anderson said the pharmacist confirmed that the CVS employee had phoned minutes before but told her the pharmacy, about an hour away in Brainerd, Minn., would be happy to fill her prescription the following day.
On Jan. 22, Anderson strapped her young son into his car seat and drove to the Walgreens. By then, snowflakes had begun to fall and the temperature dropped to the single digits. The lawsuit describes “white out” conditions as Anderson drove to and from Brainerd, on a treacherous three-hour round trip.
“I had to take my 2½-year-old out in the snowstorm, wind, blowing snow, freezing temperatures to drive to Brainerd just to get my prescription,” Anderson told WCCO.
Ultimately, she got the pill from a pharmacist at the Walgreens and made it home safely after driving more than 100 miles through a blizzard. She did not get pregnant.
Minnesota regulations allow pharmacists to turn away patients seeking emergency contraceptives because of religious or personal objection, the suit concedes. But the rules, which date back to 1999, require the objecting pharmacist to counsel the patient on other ways to obtain the drugs.
“A pharmacist can decline to fill a prescription for emergency contraception, but they must provide an alternative way for the patient to fill their prescription,” the suit argued, quoting directly from the Minnesota guidelines. “Under the exception it is the ‘responsibility of the pharmacist-in-charge to make arrangements with a nearby pharmacy to fill these prescriptions so that the appropriate information can be communicated immediately to patients.’”
Anderson’s lawsuit alleges that neither pharmacist she spoke with helped her find a way to get the pill she needed and that one told her incorrect information that could have prevented her from finding the medicine.
The lawsuit argues that refusing to provide women access to the morning-after pill is a form of sex discrimination and violates people’s civil rights.
“When pharmacists refuse to fill a prescription due to their personal beliefs, refuse to follow the rules of the Pharmacy Board and have a backup referral … they’re violating those rights,” Gender Justice Executive Director Megan Peterson told the Duluth News Tribune. “They’re putting their personal beliefs ahead of someone’s health care.”
Cody Wiberg, the director of the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy, told KSTP he had seen only two other complaints like Anderson’s in 20 years. Thrifty White Pharmacy told the TV station this week that Badeaux no longer works at the drugstore.
Anderson said she believes rural women are particularly at risk to have their medical needs overshadowed by a pharmacist’s personal beliefs because there are so few places to buy medication.
“I can’t help but wonder about other women who may be turned away,” Anderson told the Star-Tribune. “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.”