Rachel Peterson was already having a tough time of it when she called a supermarket chain's pharmacy to get a prescription filled.
Then the pharmacist made things worse.
Peterson says back in July a pharmacist at a Meijer pharmacy in Petoskey, Michigan, refused to fill her prescription for a drug to treat her miscarriage because of his religious beliefs. She's working with the American Civil Liberties Union to change Meijer's policy and is willing to go to court if need be to keep what happened to her from happening to another woman.
Peterson, of Ionia, Michigan, was out of town and away from the pharmacy that she usually uses, so she called the pharmacy at Meijer, a 230-store grocery chain located in six Midwestern states. She was initially told that the prescription her doctor had called in would be filled. But then the pharmacist there called back and said he wouldn't fill it.
"The pharmacist called me and said that he could not in good conscience fill this medication because he was a good Catholic male and could not support an abortion," Peterson told CNN.
She explained to the pharmacist that she needed the drug, misoprostol, because she'd had a miscarriage (the fetus' heart had stopped beating). Misoprostol, also known by the brand name Cytotec, is often used to treat miscarriages. If it's combined with mifepristone, a drug often called the "abortion pill," it can terminate an early pregnancy.
"He didn't believe me and said that he would still not give me the medication," Peterson said.
She asked to speak to another pharmacist; he said no other pharmacist was there. She asked to speak with a manager; he said there was no manager their to speak with. She asked whether the prescription could be transferred to another pharmacy. He said no. Peterson said she felt bullied.
"It was very difficult to deal with when you're in a really bad state of mind already. And then to have someone who doesn't believe you and not to have any empathy ... that really is difficult to comprehend," she said. "It could have severely affected me mentally and physically not to get the medication."
She was able to have the prescription filled later at her regular pharmacy in Ionia.
Reaching out for help
Once she returned home, Peterson started doing research, wondering whether her rights had been violated.
"If this is happening to me is it happening more to other people," she thought.
Peterson later talked to a regional manager at Meijer about it and was told the pharmacist was on personal leave and an investigation had been started. She filed a formal complaint with Meijer's corporate office, but never heard back.
"I would really like to hear from Meijer's to hear what their plans are moving forward and having clear policies in place so that their customers are aware of specific store policies and their rights," she said.
So now she's reached out to the ACLU, which sent a letter of complaint to Meijer on her behalf, hoping it can force the grocery chain to change its policy and make sure its enforced.
"Meijer's practice of allowing its pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions and decline to transfer them is discriminatory and violates Michigan's public accommodations laws," the ACLU said in a statement earlier this week. "Meijer must implement a policy to ensure that all customers in the future receive their medication without undue delay regardless of the personal beliefs of its pharmacists."
Meijer said it had investigated Peterson's allegations but couldn't discuss them publicly because of state and federal privacy laws. It also reiterated its policies.
"A pharmacist may refuse to fill a prescription based upon religious beliefs. However, our procedure requires the prescription to then be filled by another pharmacist in the store," Meijer said in a statement. "If no other pharmacist is available, the pharmacist must consult with the patient to arrange for the transfer of the prescription to another pharmacy that is convenient to them. This is consistent with the American Pharmacy Association and the Michigan Pharmacy Association Guidelines. A pharmacist who fails to follow this procedure, is in violation of our process."
The pharmacist, whom Meijer declined to identify, has not been employed by the grocery chain since July, it said.
It also offered an apology.
"While we cannot comment on any pharmacy customer matter, we apologize for any customer experience that does not align with our core values," Meijer said.
Peterson said if the ACLU complaint doesn't achieve the desired results, she would be willing to file a lawsuit.