Casting a Chill on the Pill

Jane Sherman

A year ago, a rape victim in Denton, Texas, went to an Eckerd drugstore to fill a prescription for emergency contraception, sometimes known as the "morning after pill." When taken within 72 hours of intercourse, the drug prevents conception. At the counter of the drugstore, however, the woman got an unpleasant surprise: The pharmacist on duty, Gene Herr, declared that it was against his moral beliefs to dispense the drug.

Herr later told the Associated Press that he had refused to fill similar prescriptions five or six times in the past. But, Herr added, this was the first time he'd been handed such a prescription for a rape victim. "I went in the back room and briefly prayed about it," he explained. Apparently, God said no. Herr's two co-workers also refused to fill the prescription, and the rape victim was left to find another pharmacy.

The Eckerd employees involved in the Denton case were all eventually fired. However, the story doesn't end there. It turns out that the nation's largest pharmacy chain, the CVS Corporation, has instituted a policy tailor-made for employees like Herr. Under the rule, CVS pharmacists can refuse to fill prescriptions on the basis of "deeply held personal beliefs."

In a separate case last March, a married mother of two was denied her prescription for regular birth control pills by a CVS pharmacist in Texas.

There have been no reported incidents of pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions in Minnesota to date. But the tales from Texas, and a similar incident closer to home in Madison, Wisconsin, have raised concern among many local women's rights advocates--especially given the fast-growing chain's expanding presence in Minnesota. (Little more than a year ago, there was not a single CVS store in Minnesota. Now there are nine and more on the way.)

According to Tina Smith, vice president of external affairs at Planned Parenthood Minnesota/South Dakota, there are no federal laws addressing the issue of "refusal clauses"--or, as proponents call them, "conscience clauses." But there is movement afoot on the state level. Several states, including South Dakota, have recently enacted legislation allowing pharmacists to refuse to dispense any medication on "moral grounds." While no such legislation has been introduced in Minnesota, according to Smith, there is nothing on the books to prevent companies from enacting their own refusal clauses.

It's not hard to imagine scenarios in which CVS's policy could prove disastrous for women. What if there is only one drugstore in town and a woman has no means of transportation? Her birth control routine could be interrupted, resulting in an unwanted pregnancy. Even with other options available, some women would no doubt find themselves traumatized--or enraged--at being deemed a sinner by a complete stranger. And, of course, there is the matter of victims of sexual assault.

Accordingly, the Minnesota branch of the National Organization for Women (NOW) is actively working to warn women about CVS's policy. While NOW has a stance against calling for formal boycotts, the group did hold an educational rally this past Saturday at CVS's Minneapolis location on Central Avenue.

According to the CVS website, the chain now operates 5,375 stores in 36 states and Washington, D.C. The nine CVS stores in Minnesota include one each in Minneapolis and St. Paul, with three more locations under construction in the suburbs. Mike DeAngelis, manager of corporate communications for CVS, says the company has plans to add more stores over the next two years in what he calls a "high-growth market."

The national Center for Disease Control reports that over 90 percent of American women use some form of birth control during their lives. Planned Parenthood, NOW, and presumably that vast majority of U.S. birth control users (including men) view birth control as a basic health care service. To allow individual pharmacists to deny women that basic right would seem like bad business. But given CVS's rapid expansion--which, ironically, included a recent partial acquisition of the Eckerd chain--there is scant reason to believe it has seen adverse financial consequences over its policy.

Critics insist there is reason to worry. "Minnesota women need reliable, immediate access to their birth control prescriptions in order to prevent unintended pregnancies," says Erin Matson, president of Minnesota NOW. "Shopping at CVS might leave them in the cold."

As for the incident involving the Texas pharmacist who refused to dispense regular birth control pills, CVS did make a nominal gesture of atonement. Tracylyn Dubois, a CVS customer relations representative, wrote in a letter to a NOW member that the pharmacist in that case had violated company policy by not referring the woman to another drugstore where she could get her prescription filled. The pharmacist in question wasn't fired, but instead was "counseled" to "ensure she follows our policy in this matter."

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