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Michigan pharmacist denies woman miscarriage medication over religious beliefs

The ACLU sent a letter of complaint asking the Meijer supermarket chain to change its policies.
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A Michigan woman says a pharmacist for a regional supermarket chain denied her medication prescribed to treat her miscarriage because it was against his religious beliefs.

The Michigan branch of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter of complaint Tuesday to Meijer, asking the company to require pharmacists to fill patients' prescriptions, regardless of the pharmacists' beliefs, after Rachel Peterson was forced to drive more than three hours to get her medication.

Peterson suffered a miscarriage in July, and her doctor prescribed her Misoprostol, which was "crucial for her to take ... in a timely manner to avoid having to undergo a more invasive surgical procedure," the ACLU said in the letter. Misoprostol can also be used to induce labor, treat ulcers and terminate a pregnancy.

Rachel Peterson and her husband
Rachel and Robby PetersonACLU Michigan

The pharmacist, identified by the ACLU as Richard Kalkman at the Meijer store in Poteskey, told Peterson that “as a good Catholic male,” he could not “in good conscience fill the prescription” because he thought she wanted to use it to end her pregnancy, the letter states.

Peterson explained to Kalkman that her doctor said the fetus was not viable, but he responded “that was just [her] word," the letter says.

"And it was very disheartening and frustrating and I just felt this couldn't be happening," Peterson told NBC News. "If it's happening to me, then who else could it be happening to?"

Peterson recalled asking Kalkman if he could pass her on to another pharmacist, let her speak to a supervisor or transfer her prescription to another pharmacy — and each time he said "no." Instead he "berated" Peterson, according to the ACLU.

“When you’re at one of the lowest moments of your life, you don’t expect this sort of demeaning treatment,” said Peterson. “A pharmacy should not be able to deny patients medication prescribed by their doctors based on the personal beliefs of a particular employee.”

Peterson was on vacation at the time and had to drive three-and-a-half hours to the Meijer near her home in Ionia to get it. By the time the Ionia pharmacy was able to find the script in their internal system, Peterson had waited six hours to get the medication.

"So I contacted the Meijer's in Ionia, and that pharmacist was wonderful, he was very sympathetic and apologetic and was appalled at the behavior and said that he would do whatever he could to obtain the script via their system," Peterson said.

Despite the runaround, Peterson considered herself lucky because her hometown pharmacy filled the prescription.

"You know, I was fortunate enough to have other resources to obtain this medication and other people may not," she said. "There could be the only pharmacy for hundreds of miles around and that could be very dangerous for someone."

The Michigan woman was "clearly was a victim of sex discrimination," according to the ACLU of Michigan policy strategist Merissa Kovach.

"Had the customer been a man prescribed the same medication, that is also commonly used to treat ulcers, the pharmacist would have filled it," Kovach added.

Meijer Pharmacy does have a policy that prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, age, disability and sex. But the ACLU says that's not enough.

Meijer is a privately owned company with nearly 250 supermarkets and 200 gas stations in the Midwest.

"The ACLU of Michigan is demanding Meijer implement a policy that ensures all pharmacy customers receive their medication without undue delay regardless of the personal beliefs of its pharmacists," the letter says.

Meijer said in a statement that Kalkman's employment there ended shortly after the July 1 incident. They did not say if he was fired, citing privacy laws. A LinkedIn profile in his name says he was employed with Meijer for more than 29 years.

"A pharmacist may refuse to fill a prescription based upon religious beliefs," the statement from Meijer said. "However, our procedure requires the prescription to then be filled by another pharmacist in the store. 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."

These guidelines are not found in Meijer's Pharmacy Non-Discrimination Notice.

The state of Michigan has no laws pertaining to pharmacy refusals. Fewer than half of U.S. states do, according to the National Women’s Law Center. Eight states require pharmacies to provide medications to patients. Seven states have policies that allow refusal but prohibit pharmacists from obstructing access to the medication.

Six states have laws or regulations that specifically allow pharmacies or pharmacists to refuse medication for religious or moral reasons without the requirement to refer or transfer the prescription elsewhere.