ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The two women had never met, but it took only a few moments for them to connect over a singular act that still makes them shudder – first with shock, then with anger – just like it did when they each walked into a Walgreens pharmacy and felt as if they were hurled back into the Dark Ages.
“It’s just hard to believe this is still happening,” says Susanne Koestner, a married woman in her 30s who made headlines when she fought back after a pharmacist refused to refill her prescription for birth control pills in June 2012 because of his religious beliefs. “It freaks people out when I tell them the story.”
That story led to a January 2013 agreement from the nationwide drugstore chain to affirm its policy of filling prescriptions, including birth control medications, “as efficiently as other prescriptions without imposing any burden on the customer.”
But four years later and in spite of that agreement, here we are again with another case alleging that a prescription was not filled because of a Walgreens pharmacist’s refusal to do so – a violation of the state Human Rights Act, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico contends.
And so here we are with the two women in the offices of the ACLU, which supported Koestner and now plans to do the same for the latest Albuquerque woman to accuse a Walgreens pharmacist of denying her service.
As a reminder, it is 2017.
In a letter submitted Jan. 12 by the ACLU to Walgreens corporate honchos in Deerfield, Ill., the woman in the latest story is listed as Jane Doe. In this conference room, she is a longtime Albuquerque Public Schools teacher in her 40s and the mother of a teenage daughter. It is the latter role that leads her to ask not to be named so as not to identify her daughter.
She says that because of struggles with difficult menstrual cycles and birth control medications, her daughter, in consultation with her gynecologist, opted to try an intrauterine device. In preparation for the procedure in August 2016, Doe said, she went to a Walgreens at Coors and Montaño NW to fill her daughter’s three prescriptions – a mild pain reliever, an anti-anxiety medication and misoprostol, a synthetic hormone used to soften the cervix in preparation for the insertion of the IUD.
Misoprostol is also often prescribed to treat stomach ulcers. But it also can be used to induce an abortion.
That last usage is believed to be the conclusion the pharmacist erroneously jumped to – as if he should have jumped at all.
The teen’s mother was told the first two prescriptions would be filled but the misoprostol would have to be picked up at another Walgreens, even though the medication was in stock. When she asked the pharmacist why he could not fill the misoprostol prescription, she says, he told her that it was against his “personal beliefs.”
Like Koestner had been years ago, the teen’s mother says she, too, was confused at first. Stunned. Ashamed, though she didn’t know why.
But as she made her way through rush-hour traffic to another Walgreens about 3 miles away, anger and indignation set in.
Koestner knew those feelings too.
“It’s like someone else takes power over your life, your choices,” Koestner says. “It’s like you are being judged.”
Doe says she turned around and went back to the first Walgreens, confronted an assistant manager and then the pharmacist.
“I told him 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,” she says. “And he just looks at me and says, ‘Oh, I have a pretty good idea.’ ”
Like Koestner, she started making calls to Walgreens officials. She contacted the Southwest Women’s Law Center, which in turn helped her contact the ACLU of New Mexico.
The ACLU letter to Walgreens points out that forcing customers to travel to another pharmacy after being denied service places a significant burden on the woman – especially if the woman relies on public transportation or has limited time or if that woman lives in a rural area where Walgreens pharmacies are few and far between.
As it did in the letter written on Koestner’s behalf, the ACLU also asked the company to immediately address the discriminatory practice and specify what steps the company planned to take to prevent a similar occurrence – and a lawsuit contending a violation of the state Human Rights Act, which protects from discrimination, including on the basis of gender.
“Religious liberty does not mean the right to discriminate against others,” attorney Erin Armstrong wrote. “Walgreens should take reasonable steps to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs and practices, but it cannot do so by imposing additional discriminatory burdens on women.”
Walgreens issued the following statement late Tuesday:
“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.”
After our meeting, the two women hugged, happy to have found some solace in knowing they were not alone, troubled by not knowing how many other women had been similarly denied and how many more might still be in the future.
UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.