In a case believed to be the first of its kind in the nation, an Aitkin County jury this week will decide whether the human rights of a rural Minnesota woman were violated when her local pharmacist refused to fill a prescription for emergency contraception.
Andrea Anderson, a mother of five from McGregor, Minn., sought a morning-after pill after a condom broke during sex. Her pharmacist, citing his beliefs, refused to fill the prescription. She sued under the Minnesota Human Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on sex, including issues related to pregnancy and childbirth.
As contraception has moved to the center of the national political debate — with the U.S. House of Representatives last week passing a bill that would guarantee the right to contraception under federal law — the decision in Anderson’s case could rouse activists on both sides of the issue.
A spokesperson for Gender Justice, the St. Paul-based group providing legal representation to Anderson, said her case appears to be the first in the nation brought to trial by a woman who was refused contraception. Women could bring similar cases in other states that have sex-discrimination laws covering reproductive issues.
All the attorneys involved in the case declined to comment, saying they didn’t want to influence the jury pool. The Minnesota Board of Pharmacy, which regulates pharmacists in the state, did not respond to a question about its policy on refusal to provide contraceptives.
The civil case has taken nearly three years to reach trial and has produced a mass of legal filings that shed light on the positions of each side and the issues at stake.
In January 2019, Anderson got a prescription for Ella, an emergency contraceptive. According to a report filed with the court by an expert witness, Ella is not an abortion pill, but works by delaying or preventing ovulation during the menstrual cycle in which it’s taken, and is more effective when taken sooner after intercourse.
George Badeaux, a pharmacist for nearly 40 years and then-manager of the Thrifty White in McGregor, told Anderson that he couldn’t fill the prescription because of his beliefs, according to court documents.
He said another pharmacist scheduled to work the next day could fill it, but that a predicted snowstorm might prevent the other pharmacist from getting to work. Badeaux offered to send the prescription to a pharmacy in Brainerd, more than 50 miles away.
At that point, according to a deposition, Anderson became angry and ended the phone call, saying, “I am going to do something about this.”
After being denied her prescription by Badeaux and Thrifty White, Anderson sought to have it filled at a CVS pharmacy in Aitkin, Minn. According to court records, a CVS pharmacy technician said Anderson’s prescription couldn’t be filled there and falsely told Anderson that she couldn’t get it filled in Brainerd, either. Anderson’s lawsuit originally included CVS as a defendant, but the parties reached a settlement.
Anderson eventually got her prescription filled at a Walgreens pharmacy in Brainerd, making the round-trip of more than 100 miles in wintry conditions that had resulted in at least one serious vehicle accident in the area.
According to court filings, Anderson later called the owner of the Thrifty White pharmacy and complained. The owner, Matt Hutera, then called Badeaux and was “hot” about the situation, Badeaux testified, telling him he should have filled the prescription.
Badeaux has declined to dispense contraceptive drugs three other times in his career, he testified, believing that the drugs would cause an abortion. In court documents, Badeaux said his objection to dispensing Ella was because it could possibly prevent a fertilized egg from implanting in the wall of the uterus.
Doing so, he said, would prevent “the new DNA, the new life, from being able to continue to live and grow. It is similar to removing all care from a newborn child by throwing it out the backdoor into the woods.”
According to scientific testimony in the case, emergency contraceptives such as Ella and Plan B are not the same as the so-called “abortion pill” — which actually is a combination of two medicines that do end a pregnancy by causing the woman’s body to empty her uterus, expelling the implanted egg.
An important legal distinction in this case is its filing under the state’s Human Rights Act. In a pretrial order, Aitkin County District Judge David Hermerding ruled that Badeaux cannot raise federal constitutional issues such as freedom of religion at the trial.
“The issue for the jury is not defendant’s constitutional rights,” the judge wrote. “It is whether he deliberately misled, obfuscated and blocked Ms. Anderson’s path to obtaining Ella.”
Badeaux will be allowed to explain his religious beliefs to the jury, the judge ruled, “but not in such a manner as to confuse the jury into thinking this is a religious freedom contest.”
Jury selection is scheduled to start Monday morning and the case is expected to conclude before the end of the week.