After receiving the heartbreaking news last week that the baby growing inside of her no longer had a heartbeat, Nicole Arteaga of Peoria, Arizona, was given the choice of a surgical procedure to remove the fetus or medication to induce contractions. Devastated, she chose the medication—but when she went to her local Walgreens later that day, pharmacist Brian Hreniuc refused her tear-filled pleas for access to the pill, claiming it violated his “ethical beliefs.”
The 35-year-old mother bravely shared her story on Saturday in a Facebook post that has since gone viral. “Last night I went to pick up my medication at my local Walgreens only to be denied the prescription I need,” she explained. “I stood at the mercy of this pharmacist explaining my situation in front of my seven-year-old, and five customers standing behind, only to be denied because of his ethical beliefs. I get it, we all have our beliefs. But what he failed to understand is this isn’t the situation I had hoped for, this isn’t something I wanted. This is something I have zero control over. He has no idea what its like to want nothing more than to carry a child to full term and be unable to do so. If you have gone through a miscarriage you know the pain and emotional roller it can be. I left Walgreens in tears, ashamed and feeling humiliated by a man who knows nothing of my struggles but feels it is his right to deny medication prescribed to me by my doctor.”
According to the Phoenix-area school teacher, another Walgreens’ pharmacist at the store also refused to fill her prescription that day. She was directed to drive 20 minutes out of the way to a pharmacy, where she could possibly undergo the same rejection.
Walgreens responded on Twitter by suggesting that the company’s policy strikes a compromise—between the pharmacist’s moral objections and the woman’s ultimate health—by requiring the pharmacy give the rejected woman an alternative. This isn’t good enough. Nor is it helpful to women held at the mercy of a pharmacist’s personal and possibly fluid notions of morality.
Our policy allows pharmacists to step away from filling a prescription for which they have a moral objection. At the same time, they are also required to refer the prescription to another pharmacist or manager on duty to meet the patient's needs in a timely manner.
— WAGSocialCare (@WAGSocialCare) June 24, 2018
If Arteaga’s husband sought to fill the prescription, it seems highly unlikely that he would’ve been questioned about why he needed the medication or that he would be turned away. The medication denied to Arteaga was for misoprostol, which is commonly used for terminating pregnancies, opening the cervix for insertion of an IUD, and for treating stomach ulcers—a gender-neutral health issue.
Arteaga appears to have been unfairly singled out and denied the medication because of her sex, which is exactly the type of discriminatory treatment that should be understood as a direct violation of civil rights laws. An Albuquerque teen is currently suing Walgreens in federal court for just that reason: In 2016, the 13-year-old New Mexico girl was prescribed misoprostol to prepare her body for the IUD doctors said was necessary to treat her menstrual complications. When her mother went to fill the prescription, the Walgreens’ pharmacist refused based on his personal beliefs. “Had [she] been a man with a valid prescription for the same medication,” her lawsuit alleges, “the prescription would have been filled.”
In defending the lawsuit, Walgreens maintains that state law supports its store policy. Once again, that excuse falls short.
Arizona, where Arteaga resides, is among a handful of states with laws that specifically allow pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for religious or moral reasons without providing alternative health care options, such as transferring the prescription to another pharmacy or issuing a referral. New Mexico, however, is not. Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Mississippi and South Dakota have laws allowing pharmacists to refuse prescriptions and prevent access to medication; Alabama, Delaway, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas have laws that allow for refusing prescriptions but not obstructing access.
These type of “pharmacist conscience laws,” which are often leveraged to restrict women’s access to emergency contraception, were among those passed in an attempt to circumvent Roe v. Wade. Overall, these laws and subjective limitations created by individual pharmacists disproportionately impact women’s reproductive health and their right to control their own bodies.
Proponents of conscience laws may believe the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision for the Colorado cake-maker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple based on religious beliefs supports the pharmacist in Arteaga’s situation to refuse to sell medication based on personal beliefs. But that conclusion would be amiss. The Supreme Court didn’t back the Colorado cake-maker’s decision to discriminate; it simply ruled that the Colorado Civil Rights Commission mishandled his case by not being neutral. In fact, the Supreme Court used the decision to double-down on the “general rule” that businesses could not discriminate just because the business owner has “religious and philosophical” objections.
That general rule should apply to Arteaga, who made the decision with her doctor to have a miscarriage at home instead of an invasive medical procedure. She made an informed decision that should not have been trumped by any moral objection—not least one from a pharmacist who most likely would never have treated her that way if she had been a man.
This isn’t new territory for Walgreens, and it isn’t new territory for the women fighting back and demanding full access to their constitutional reproductive rights. Women turned away from health services due to so-called moral objections can pursue recourse—whether that looks like sharing her story with the press, filing a complaint with her state’s pharmacy board, alerting the pharmacy’s headquarters, pushing for state legislature to eliminate pharmacist conscience laws or filing a lawsuit against the pharmacy.
These laws must change—and when brave women like Arteaga speak up, they make room for a future where individual personal beliefs don’t trump women’s health care decisions.