A mother and daughter in Albuquerque, New Mexico, had a close encounter of the puritanical kind when a pharmacist allegedly refused to fill a prescription related to birth control for the teen, according to documents from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of New Mexico's complaint about the incident.
According to the complaint filed Friday, the mother went to pick up three prescriptions for her 15-year-old daughter in August of 2016: a pain reliever, an anti-anxiety medication, and Misoprostol, which is a medication prescribed to treat and prevent stomach ulcers and (as in this case) to prepare a cervix for intrauterine contraceptive devices (IUDs). It also has been used after a miscarriage to expel the failed pregnancy and in conjunction with mifepristone for abortions.
The mother alleges that she was told by the pharmacist on duty that she'd have to pick up the Misoprostol somewhere else, even though they had the medication in stock, because of his "personal beliefs."
In a statement sent to KRQE News 13, Walgreens officials reaffirmed their policy to allow pharmacists to refuse to fill a prescription, but also said they hope to address the concerns pointed out in the ACLU of New Mexico's complaint. Walgreens also stated it would retrain its employees about the proper procedures for conscientious objection. The statement read:
Our policy is to allow pharmacists and other employees to step away from completing a transaction to which they may have a moral objection, and requires the pharmacist or other employee to refer the transaction to another employee or manager on duty to complete the customer’s request. The policy’s objective is to ensure that in these rare instances, patients – both male and female – are offered reasonable alternatives to access legally prescribed medications. We have expressed our desire to work closely with the ACLU of New Mexico to address its concerns, and also as we review our policies and evaluate other services to help meet the needs of patients and customers. Additionally, we have taken the opportunity to retrain all of our pharmacists and store leadership in New Mexico on policies and procedures relating to conscientious objection, to ensure that we’re providing the highest level of patient care and service.
According to the documents from the ACLU, when the mother asked for clarification as to why the pharmacist would not complete the transaction, the pharmacist "explained in a judgmental tone that he was refusing to fill the prescription because he had a 'pretty good idea' for what purpose the medication would be used."
The mother and daughter told the ACLU that they felt "judged, disrespected, and embarrassed." They also expressed that they were uncomfortable with the idea of a random pharmacist's approval or permission playing any kind of role in the daughter's health care.
And the ACLU alleges that the incident is also sex discrimination that violates the New Mexico Human Rights Act, because the refusal of services was directly tied to this pharmacist's objections to a procedure that only uterus-owning people receive.
Pamelya Herndon, executive director of SWLC, echoed this concern, stating that because the patient was a woman, the pharmacist "automatically assumed the medication was for a reproductive health purpose that he personally opposed, forcing her to travel to a different pharmacy. That’s not right."
This isn't the first time the ACLU faced off against Walgreens for this kind of issue in New Mexico. It had a similar complaint in 2012 when Susanne Koestner alleged another Walgreens pharmacist refused to fill her birth control prescription.
While the ACLU agreed not to continue filing the complaint under the NM Human Rights Act back then after the chain promised to address the policies, the continued burden placed on their uterus-owning customers seems to have become something the civil rights group can no longer abide.