Yes, Pharmacists Can Deny You Birth Control

Photo: Florian K¸ttler/Corbis

In America, we have access to many things: YouTube, weed delivery services, supermarkets bigger than entire small villages. And yet when a woman wants to choose what to do with her body, there is little chance that she can do so without outside, invasive forces interfering. 

Both birth control and abortion are legal in this country, but access to them is under constant assault. It’s not just protesters at clinics (or politicians in statehouses) — your friendly local pharmacist also gets to weigh in on whether you can exercise your rights or not. So-called conscience clauses, in place in many corporate drugstore chains, mean that employees can basically opt out of filling your prescription.

In an editorial for Cosmopolitan, Haley Potiker writes of her experience trying to get a medical abortion. She’d discussed the option with her gynecologist, had already received a shot of methotrexate (the first step of the procedure), then went to fill a prescription for misoprostol and Vicodin to complete the process and blunt the pain. When Potiker dropped her prescription off at a CVS pharmacy, she was denied access to the medication by a pharmacist. She writes:

The pharmacist was standing right in front of me, ignoring me and typing on a computer. Finally, she spoke. “We aren’t going to be able to fill this without talking to your doctor.” I protested again: “My doctor has already administered folic-acid blocker shots. She told me I am only supposed to wait five days to induce a miscarriage. She probably won’t be able to call you back before the weekend, and I don’t want to get sick.”

She kept staring at her computer screen, avoiding my eyes. “There’s nothing I can do,” she said coldly. I started demanding my prescription back, which took a minute and eventually ended in tears. She finally tossed the slip of paper onto the counter and walked away without a word.

When Potiker visited another CVS, she was administered her prescription within 30 minutes without an issue. She then began searching online to see if what had happened at the first CVS — the denial of medication her doctor had already approved — was even legal. Turns out, it is:

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “A pharmacy’s or pharmacist’s refusal to sell birth control does not violate a woman’s federal constitutional rights. The U.S. Constitution imposes no limitations on nongovernmental institutions like privately owned pharmacies. Even if the refusal takes place in a state-owned pharmacy, a woman has no federal constitutional right to receive contraception. Although the Constitution protects a woman’s right to contraception, it does not ensure that women can access reproductive health services.”

As Potiker points out, conscience clauses mean that retailers can set their own policies on moral decisions like administering birth control. She was lucky, and had the resources and time to go to another location to fill her prescription. But not everyone does — and no one should have to.

Yes, Pharmacists Can Deny You Birth Control