(FOX 9) - In a case that will be closely watched across the country, a trial began Monday in a lawsuit filed by a woman from a small town in central Minnesota against two pharmacies that refused to fill her prescription for emergency contraception in 2019.
The lawsuit, which was filed in December of 2019 on behalf of the woman by lawyers working with St. Paul-based advocacy group Gender Justice, claims the pharmacies violated the Minnesota Human Rights act provisions against discrimination. It seeks a court order prohibiting pharmacists in Minnesota from refusing to fill emergency contraception prescriptions, as well as monetary compensation and damages.
What the lawsuit alleges
According to the complaint, Andrea Anderson, a mother of five and a licensed foster parent, obtained a prescription from her doctor for Ella, a "morning after pill" form of emergency contraception medication, on January 20, 2019, after her partner's condom failed.
The couple had lived in McGregor, Minnesota, a small town in Aitkin County with a population of about 392 people at the time, for several years. The town only had one pharmacy, Thrifty White, where Anderson's doctor sent the prescription.
However, when Anderson called the pharmacy to make sure the medication would be covered by her insurance, she received a call back from the pharmacist on duty, George Badeaux, who told her that he could not fill the prescription because of his "beliefs," according to the complaint.
Badeaux also allegedly told Anderson that she should avoid going to another nearby pharmacy and that another pharmacist who worked at Thrifty White might be able to help her when he started his shift later that day — but that was a snowstorm coming, and that pharmacist might not make it into work, the complaint says.
Anderson, who was trying to act quickly because "any delay in obtaining the medication increased the risk of pregnancy," then called a CVS pharmacy in Aitkin, Minnesota. A female pharmacist there told Anderson that she would not be able to fill the prescription, according to the complaint.
The complaint says that the CVS pharmacists went on to tell Anderson that the Walgreens in Brainerd also would not be able to fill the prescription, but when Anderson later called that Walgreens directly, she got a different story.
According to the complaint, the pharmacist at the Walgreens in Brainerd told Anderson that she had told the pharmacist in Aitkin that she could fill Anderson’s prescription. The Walgreens pharmacist also told Anderson that she could get the medication sent to the store the next day but that the pending snowstorm might cause a delay.
The complaint says that eventually, Anderson was able to find a pharmacy to fill the prescription, but it was one 50 miles from her home. By that time, a "massive snowstorm" had begun to hit central Minnesota, and it took Anderson over three hours to drive the 100-mile round tip, which was about an hour longer than it would have taken normally.
The complaint says that the pharmacies — the Thrifty White and the CVS in Aitkin — and their employees violated the Minnesota statutes against discrimination because they "singled out health care only people who may become pregnant need--emergency contraception-- and refused to provide it."
It also alleges that the defendant tried to prevent Anderson "from obtaining the care from others by putting delays and obstacles in her path, failing to provide her a reasonable alternative, and in one instance, apparently deceiving her about where she could obtain care."
"First of its kind" case
Gender Justice, the organization representing the plaintiff, claims this is a "first of its kind" case. While there have been several lawsuits nationwide of pharmacists refusing to fill emergency contraception prescriptions due to personal beliefs, this one is being argued as a gender discrimination case.
"What makes this case unique is approaching the issue from a different direction," said Mitchell Hamline law professor David Schultz. "It's taking a body of law that’s been out there for many years and using it in a way it's never been used before."
A judge in the case ruled that because of its filing under the Human Rights Act, the pharmacist cannot use his religious beliefs as a defense during the trial.
University of St. Thomas law professor and director of the school’s Pro-Life Center Teresa Collett says not allowing the defendant to speak to his religious freedoms is a constitutional violation in itself.
"When we start telling people, you can be sued in court and the court gets to tell you how you get to explain your motivation – that’s problematic," she said. "That’s a constitutional violation in itself."
Both Collett and Schultz agree that no matter what the jury decides in Aitkin County, the decision is likely to be appealed.