Trial begins for emergency contraception denial in Aitkin County

A single pill in a container.
An emergency contraception pill is seen through packaging in this stock photo.
Photo by Sophia Moss

Jury selection is underway Monday in Aitkin County for a case believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. At issue is whether the rights of a McGregor Minnesota woman were violated when her local pharmacist refused to fill a prescription for emergency contraception.

The pharmacist cited his religious beliefs for the refusal. John Reinan is a reporter at the Star Tribune who has been following this case for the past three years. He joined host Cathy Wurzer to talk more about what happened.

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Click the audio player above to listen to their conversation.

How did this story start?

Well, it started in 2019, three years ago when a woman from McGregor, a town in the Brainerd area, had a condom failed during intercourse. She went into her local pharmacy to get an emergency contraceptive, not birth control, that is different from emergency contraceptive. It was called Ella and it works similar to what's known as the Plan B pill.

If you take it after sex, it can delay or prevent ovulation within that same menstrual period. So it is not an abortion pill, it acts to delay the release of the egg. And so she went into her local pharmacy and the pharmacist there told her that it was against his beliefs to dispense and that she couldn't get it there.

Did he offer to send it to another pharmacy?

That is going to be an issue in the case because the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy requires pharmacists to do what they can in their power to help people fill a prescription if they are not going to fill it. He may perhaps not have been as aggressive as he might have been in helping her find other options. I think that's something the jury is going to have to decide.

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But he told her, “well, there's a CVS, you could go there” and he said he could send the prescription up to Brainerd to the Walgreens.

At that point the woman whose name is Andrea Anderson, became angry. And she's basically felt like, I don't want to deal with you anymore. And she said, “you know, I'm going to do something about this,” literally, that was her quote. And she then stopped trying to get it at the McGregor Thrifty White.

Can pharmacists in Minnesota deny emergency contraception or any medication because of their religious beliefs?

They can according to the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy. This is something that the Board issued a policy on in 1999. They say that they still are following that 23-year-old policy. If a pharmacist does not want to dispense a medication because of the pharmacist’s beliefs, the pharmacist is required by pharmacy board regulations to assist the person in getting that prescription filled.

Another point that the jury may have to decide in this case, the pharmacy board requires pharmacists and pharmacies to have those policies in place ahead of time, so that they're not just winging it when someone comes in and the situation arises. And that may also be a question that the jury will have to decide in this case is whether that pharmacy actually did have a plan in place or whether they were just sort of, you know, playing it by the seat of their pants.

Has the pharmacist done this before?

Yeah, the pharmacist testified in a deposition that he had three times previously not filled a prescription for a form of contraception; once when he was working at a pharmacy in Grand Marais. And then two other times when he was working in McGregor, so yes, he had declined to fill prescriptions before

And he's been in the business for quite some time.

About 40 years. He got his pharmacy license in the early 1980s.

So the woman in this case, decides to sue under the State Human Rights Law, is that correct?

That's correct. So there have been cases on the federal level, people might remember a few years ago, the Hobby Lobby case, and that was when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that an employer does not have to provide contraception at no cost through their health plan if they object.

Hobby Lobby is run by religious people and they didn't want to provide contraception under their insurance plan. The Supreme Court ruled that it was a freedom of religion issue and that this was OK to deny.

But, this is purely a state case. Minnesota has a Human Rights Act that prevents discrimination of various kinds, including sex discrimination and sex is defined to also include issues relating to pregnancy and childbirth.

So the pharmacist in this case, cannot claim his federal constitutional right to freedom of religion, because he's being sued under a state law that guarantees women the right to not be discriminated against in pregnancy and childbirth.

So in this post-Roe world, a lot of people are watching this case?

I would think so. The people at Gender Justice, a St. Paul advocacy group, are giving the legal representation to Andrea Anderson in this case. And they told me that they'd done research, and they're not aware of another state case like this that has actually come to trial.

So this, is probably the first, if not the first, certainly one of the first in the nation that's actually come to trial and there's going to be a decision probably within the next two or three days.

That seems fast?

Well it’s a civil trial, not a criminal trial. And there are only going to be a few witnesses on each side. So basically, what you're going to have is the woman, the plaintiff, who's saying she was denied contraception — she's going to testify, the pharmacist will testify — and they're going to have an expert witness come in and testify about the science involved.

And then the other side, the Thrifty White Pharmacy, which is being sued. They have a few witnesses, but there are probably going to be eight or 10 witnesses in this case. I imagine it's going to move pretty rapidly.

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Audio transcript

[MUSIC PLAYING] CATHY WURZER: Our top story is the jury selection that's underway today, in Aitkin County, for a case believed to be the first of its kind in the nation. At issue is whether the rights of a McGregor, Minnesota woman were violated, when her local pharmacist refused to fill a prescription for emergency contraception. The pharmacist cited his religious beliefs for the refusal. John Reinan is a reporter at the Star Tribune, who's been following this case for the past three years. He joins me now to talk about what happened. John, welcome to Minnesota Now. How have you been?

JOHN REINAN: I've been very good, Cathy, thank you.

CATHY WURZER: Good, thanks for being here. How did this story start?

JOHN REINAN: Well, it started in 2019, three years ago, actually in the wintertime, when a woman, a mother of five, from McGregor, that's a town in the Brainerd area. She had a condom fail during intercourse. And she went into her local pharmacy to get an emergency contraceptive. And at some point, we should discuss the difference between emergency contraceptives and abortion pills because they're not the same.

CATHY WURZER: Yes, you are right. We're talking about emergency contraception in this case.

JOHN REINAN: Yes. So she went in to get an emergency contraceptive. It was called Ella. E-L-L-A, like a woman's name. And it works similar to what's known as the Plan B pill. What it does is, if you take it after sex, it can delay or prevent ovulation within that same menstrual period. So it is not an abortion pill. It acts to delay the release of the egg. And so she went into her local pharmacy. And the pharmacist there told her that it was against his beliefs to dispense. And that she couldn't get it there.

CATHY WURZER: Did he offer to send her to another pharmacy?

JOHN REINAN: That is going to be an issue in the case. Because the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy requires-- excuse me-- pharmacists to do what they can in their power to help people fill a prescription, if they are not going to fill it. He may perhaps not have been as aggressive as he might have been, in helping her find other options. I think that's something the jury is going to have to decide. But he told her, well, there's a CVS. And you could go there. And he said, I could send the prescription up to Brainerd, to the Walgreens.

At that point, the woman, whose name is Andrea Anderson, became angry. And she just basically felt like, I don't want to deal with you anymore. And she said, I'm going to do something about this. Literally, that was her quote. And she then stopped trying to get it at the McGregor Thrifty White.

CATHY WURZER: Can pharmacists, John, in Minnesota, deny emergency contraception or any medication because of their religious beliefs?

JOHN REINAN: They can, according to the Minnesota Board of Pharmacy. This is something that the board issued a policy in 1999. And they say that they still are following that 23-year-old policy. If a pharmacist does not want to dispense a medication because of the pharmacist's beliefs, the pharmacist is required by pharmacy board regulations to assist the person in getting that prescription filled.

Another point that the jury may have to decide in this case, the pharmacy board requires pharmacists and pharmacies to have those policies in place ahead of time. So that they're not just winging it, when someone comes in and this situation arises. And that may also be a question that the jury will have to decide in this case, is whether that pharmacy actually did have a plan in place, or whether they were just playing it by the seat of their pants.

CATHY WURZER: I was reading the article you wrote this morning about the case. Has the pharmacist done this before?

JOHN REINAN: Yeah, the pharmacist testified in a deposition that he had three times previously not filled a prescription for a form of contraception. Once, when he was working at a pharmacy in Grand Marais, and then two other times, when he was working in McGregor. So yes, he had declined to fill prescriptions before.

CATHY WURZER: And he's been in the business for quite some time.

JOHN REINAN: About 40 years, yeah, He got his pharmacy license in the early 1980s.

CATHY WURZER: So the woman in this case decides to sue under the state human rights law, is that correct?

JOHN REINAN: That's correct. And that's another interesting-- without getting too much into the legalese, I think it's something that a layperson can grasp. So there have been cases on the federal level. People might remember a few years ago, the Hobby Lobby case. And that was when the US Supreme Court ruled that an employer does not have to provide contraception at no cost through their health plan, if they object. And Hobby Lobby was run-- the company is run by religious people. And they didn't want to provide contraception under their insurance plan.

The Supreme Court ruled that it was a freedom of religion issue, and that this was OK to deny. But this is purely a state case. Minnesota has a Human Rights Act that prevents discrimination of various kinds, including sex discrimination. And sex is defined to also include issues relating to pregnancy and childbirth. So the pharmacist, in this case, cannot claim his federal constitutional right to freedom of religion. Because he's being sued under a state law that guarantees women the right to not be discriminated against, in pregnancy and childbirth.

CATHY WURZER: So in this post Roe world, a lot of people are watching this case.

JOHN REINAN: I would think so. I mean, the people at Gender Justice, it's a Saint Paul advocacy group. And they are giving the legal representation to Andrea Anderson in this case. And they told me that they'd done research. And they're not aware of another state case like this that has actually come to trial. So this, they say, well, maybe there's one that we didn't come across. But they feel like it's probably the first. If not the first, certainly one of the first in the nation that's actually come to trial. And there's going to be a decision, probably within the next two or three days.

CATHY WURZER: That seems fast, John.

JOHN REINAN: Well, it's a civil trial, not a criminal trial. And there are only going to be a few witnesses on each side. So basically, what you're going to have is the woman, the plaintiff who's suing, who was denied contraception. She's going to testify. The pharmacist will testify. They're going to have an expert witness come in and testify about the science involved. And then, the other side, the Thrifty White Pharmacy, which is being sued, they have a few witnesses. But it's really-- there are probably only going to be 8 or 10 witnesses in this case. So I imagine it's going to move pretty rapidly.

CATHY WURZER: And I know you'll be covering it. John, thanks for the update. I appreciate it.

JOHN REINAN: You're welcome. And I'm going to have to look into your Findian stuff. Because my mom was Finnish.

CATHY WURZER: Really? OK. Hey, you got to listen, later on in the program. It's a good piece from our friend, Dan Crocker. Thank you, John.

JOHN REINAN: You're welcome. Bye now.

CATHY WURZER: John Reinan is a reporter at the Star Tribune.

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