Editor's note: London Drugs has responded to this article. See: London Drugs apologizes to customer denied morning-after pill by anti-choice pharmacist.
Sarah Arboleda has also written a follow-up commentary piece. See: More thoughts on being denied the morning-after pill by a pharmacist.
A few months ago, I prowled around downtown Vancouver in the early morning hours waiting for a pharmacy to open so I could buy the morning-after pill. My story was not terrifically unique: the condom broke the night before, and even though I was also using a diaphragm, I wanted to be careful.
As the London Drugs on Granville opens about an hour earlier than the rest, I headed to the back of the store to ask the pharmacist where I could find it, and how much it was, since I couldn’t find it anywhere in the store. Keep in mind that, a few weeks earlier, I’d seen the pill available and on the shelves of a local Rexall and a Shoppers Drug Mart in the far more conservative city of Surrey, so I thought they may simply have been out.
The pharmacist—a somewhat older woman in her 40s or 50s—looked me over ungracefully and said that while the pill was for sale at their location, she required me to complete a questionnaire before she would release it. I assumed this was standard procedure. She asked me a number of questions—maybe four or five—included in them whether I’d had the pill before. When I said “No” she wrapped up the interview and told me that I needed to see my doctor and that she would not allow me to buy the pill.
Again, this was a health professional employed by a major pharmaceutical retailer in Canada. Clearly she was not just acting of her own volition. Clearly this was a genuine requirement.
Actually, no. What the Canadian National Association of Pharmacy Regulatory Authorities (NAPRA) stated in 2008 was that Plan B was now an over-the-counter drug available without a prescription. In fact, the only requirement was that the pill be stocked close to the pharmacy so that customers may ask questions if they chose. However, the purchase of the pill would no longer require a doctor’s prescription or a pharmacist’s oversight. In fact, I cannot even find information about a specific age requirement for the pill within Canada. Even in the United States the pill can be purchased without a prescription from age 17 onward.
I left the pharmacy feeling anxious and not a little judged, yet I hadn’t thought to look into the legality of her actions at the time. In fact, because I assumed she was telling the truth, I hadn’t even tried other pharmacies for fear of further embarrassment. It wasn’t until recently, when I browsing articles online, that I realized I had been grossly misinformed.
My experience was far from unusual, as I found out. This questionnaire is administered in many pharmacies around Canada, with pharmacists charging up to $40 just for the consultation—if they choose to allow you to buy the pill—which is anywhere from $25 to $40 itself. Keep in mind that this questionnaire is neither requested nor required by NAPRA, yet many pharmacists will refuse to release the pill without its completion as they feel that Plan B should not be as easy to buy as aspirin, despite its very clear and very legal classification as an over-the-counter, prescription- and consultation-free drug.
Now I was angry, and I called the pharmacy department of the Granville and Georgia store directly. The gist of the call was this: I asked whether I could get the pill without a prescription or consultation, and she said yes. When I asked her why the pharmacist I spoke with months earlier told me a different story, the woman on the phone sounded genuinely shocked. She confirmed that this was not the policy of the store or the company (or Canadian law) to deny the pill to anyone and that while a first-time user is advised to ask questions first for safety’s sake, they should not—and cannot—be outright denied.
Put simply, the pharmacist from months earlier had lied. And her lie could have resulted in a much more difficult and much more life-altering decision down the road. But regardless of any larger implications, in that moment, she—and many pharmacists around Canada like her—decided that her own moral compass should somehow supersede her legal and professional duty as a pharmacist.
I’m 24 years old. I’m in a committed relationship. I’m responsible with birth control. I’m not saying that if any of the above factors hadn’t been true that somehow this pharmacist would have been right in denying me the pill. However, my bigger concern was that if I couldn’t get Plan B, who could? Did I need a punch card for abortive drugs through my family physician? Did I need to collect all 10 before I could have free access to a legal, over-the-counter drug? Did she have a similar policy with everything in her pharmacy? If you’d never previously tried grape-flavor Dimetapp was she uncomfortable dispensing that as well? What about anti-fungal creams?
I know that I am neither the first nor the last person to be denied access to the morning-after pill in a Canadian pharmacy. The truth is that while we Canadians seem so eager to pat ourselves on the back over our government’s stance on women’s rights, healthcare, and contraceptives (especially compared to the “War on Women” happening down south at the moment), I wouldn’t declare victory on this issue just yet.
Sarah Arboleda is a recent graduate of Simon Fraser University with a BA Honours in English. She has written for a number of online and print publications, including the Peak at SFU, Sad Mag, Zelda Lily, and her own blog, Tea Leaves and Dog Ears.