What happens when pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions?

The latest example happened recently in Michigan, where a pharmacist turned away a pregnant woman with a prescription for miscarriage medicine, as the Detroit Free Press reported. Drugstore chains typically require pharmacists with religious objections to certain medications to refer customers to another pharmacist or drugstore location for help.

The Michigan pharmacist didn't.

Last week, Rachel Peterson arrived at a Meijer drugstore in the small Michigan town of Ionia with a prescription for miscarriage medicine from her obstetrician. Peterson had desperately wanted a baby but learned the fetus had no heartbeat, according to news accounts. Her doctor advised her that taking the drug misoprostol was a safe, noninvasive option — and one that would save her from having surgery to remove the failed pregnancy.

Misoprostol is commonly used in pregnancy loss. And it’s one of two drugs that, when taken together, cause an abortion. But Peterson wasn’t having an abortion — not that it was the pharmacist’s business, anyway.

"He said that he was a good Catholic male and that he couldn’t in good conscience give me this medication because it’s used for abortions, and he could not prescribe that," Peterson recalled to the Detroit Free Press.

The pharmacist refused to transfer her prescription to another pharmacy. When she explained that her pregnancy wasn’t viable, he told her he didn’t believe her.

The Michigan American Civil Liberties Union has filed a complaint against the pharmacist, saying his refusal to fill the prescription amounts to discrimination.

Where do pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions?

Peterson’s experience isn’t isolated — it’s shockingly common. Gender bias is already a widespread issue in health care, and in certain states, pharmacy discrimination is no different.

The National Women’s Law Center, which tracks these denials, found pharmacists have rejected prescriptions for birth control and emergency contraceptives in at least 26 states.

Rite-Aid, Wal-mart, Walgreens, Eckerd, and CVS are just a few of the major drugstore chains where pharmacists have refused to fill valid prescriptions for birth control.

Many drugstores also make it unnecessarily hard to buy the emergency contraceptives, like Plan B, which are supposed to be available without a prescription.

“These refusals can have devastating consequences for women’s health,” the National Women’s Law Center noted in a report. Apart from discriminating against women, blocking access to contraceptives is a public health concern because nearly half of pregnancies in this country are unintended.

Is it legal in certain states for pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions?

In Arizona, the state Board of Pharmacy is now investigating a complaint after a Phoenix woman was denied miscarriage medicine at a local Walgreens, as Associated Press reported.

This spring, a CVS pharmacist in the state also refused to fill or transfer a transgender woman’s prescription for hormone replacement therapy, as Rewire.News reported.

“He did not give me a clear reason for the refusal,” Hilde Hall said in a complaint filed with the state board. “He just kept asking, loudly and in front of other CVS staff and customers, why I was given the prescriptions. I nearly started crying in the middle of the store.”

Arizona is one of six states — including Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi and South Dakota — that shield pharmacists, allowing them to refuse to fill prescriptions on moral or religious grounds, according to the National Women’s Law Center.

However, more than a dozen states protect patients’ right to a prescription. These states require drugstores to dispense the prescription or, at a minimum, prevent pharmacists from blocking the prescription request.