Walgreens Accused of Sex Discrimination After Pharmacist Refuses to Fill Prescription Due to ‘Personal Beliefs’

Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy
Contributing Writer
“Our policy is intended to meet the needs of our patients while also respecting the sincerely held views of our pharmacists,” Walgreens said in a January statement. (Photo: AP Images)

On Friday, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico and the Southwest Women’s Law Center filed two complaints on behalf of a mother and daughter with the New Mexico Human Rights Bureau. The complaints allege that a Walgreens pharmacy in Albuquerque, N.M., discriminated against a female patient by refusing to fill a prescription related to her birth control.

The daughter, who is not named in the filing to protect her identity since she is a minor, was experiencing difficulties with her period and went to her doctor for help. After trying and not finding relief with various other birth control methods, the doctor prescribed the young woman an intrauterine device (IUD).

Actions leading to complaints

In August 2016, her mother, listed by her initials M.S. in the complaint, went to a Walgreens pharmacy to fulfill the prescriptions her daughter’s doctor had written in preparation for the IUD insertion procedure. Those three prescriptions were a pain reliever, an anti-anxiety medication, and misoprostol, a synthetic hormone that softens the cervix in advance of an IUD insertion. Misoprostol is also commonly prescribed to treat stomach ulcers and can be used to induce abortion. 

The Walgreens pharmacist that M.S. went to told her that he was unwilling to fill that prescription because of his “personal beliefs.” M.S. was told she could pick up the prescription at another Walgreens store, despite it being available at the pharmacy to which she had originally gone.

A representative for Walgreens explained to Yahoo Beauty in a statement that the drugstore’s policy regarding personal beliefs is such that pharmacists and other employees may “step away from 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.”

M.S. told the Albuquerque Journal that she told the pharmacist, Jesse Garrett, that “he was discriminating against me, that he should be ashamed for judging us, that he didn’t know my daughter’s medical history or her complications or conversation with her doctor. That he didn’t know what the medication was for. And he just looks at me and says, ‘Oh, I have a pretty good idea.’”

The basis for sex discrimination

According to the complaint, the pharmacist’s behavior constitutes sex discrimination as “[r]efusing to fill prescriptions that are directly tied to the attributes that make women different from men — i.e., the ability to become pregnant — constitutes sex discrimination.”

As the ACLU explains, “M.S. understood Mr. Garrett’s denial of services to be based on his assumption that her daughter would use the medication for a reproductive health purpose to which he was personally opposed. Indeed, the medication was prescribed to assist with a contraceptive procedure that only women receive. It is inconceivable that the same denial of service would have occurred if Mr. Garrett had assumed that the medication would be used to treat stomach ulcers — the only indicated usage for men. In other words, had the patient been a man, rather than M.S.’s daughter, it is reasonable to assume that the prescription would have been filled at this location without delay.”

Walgreens notes that their “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.”

The New Mexico Human Rights Act states that it is “an unlawful discriminatory practice for … any person in any public accommodation to make a distinction, directly or indirectly, in offering or refusing to offer its services, facilities, accommodations or goods to any person because of race, religion, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, spousal affiliation or physical or mental handicap…” And so, the ACLU and SWLC say, Walgreens is in violation of the New Mexico Human Rights Act by filling, or not filling, prescriptions differently based on the sex of the person for whom such a prescription is required.

The complaint outlines that Walgreens’s protocol for employees refusing to fill a prescription because of personal beliefs is to transfer the prescription to another Walgreens location.

In a statement to the Albuquerque Journal in January, Walgreens said, “We take very seriously our responsibility to serve the prescription needs of our patients. While we cannot comment on the specifics of this incident, we can tell you that our policy is intended to meet the needs of our patients while also respecting the sincerely held views of our pharmacists. We believe our policy has been very effective in doing that.”

Similar cases

The company faced a similar suit in 2012, when an Albuquerque-area pharmacist refused to fill a birth control prescription, citing religious beliefs. Shortly after, Walgreens pledged to fill birth control medications “as efficiently as other prescriptions without imposing any burden on the customer.”

A representative for Walgreens tells Yahoo Beauty, “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 National Women’s Law Center, there have been reports of pharmacies — and not just Walgreens — refusing to fill prescriptions for birth control or emergency contraception in at least 25 U.S. states.

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