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What to do if you are refused birth control

We hope you can always get the birth control you need, but if you're ever in a refusal situation, here's how to deal.

by Claire Tighe

The get-away weekend we planned would be picture perfect: three days in a cozy guesthouse near the ocean. Day hikes tracing the tracks of a moose through the snow. Evenings with board games by the warmth of a woodstove. Nights cozied up under layers of woolen blankets, our tired legs tangled up to share warmth. Everything went as planned—until our winter boots knocked together and I ended up needing emergency contraception.

There I was, far from home, in need of the morning-after pill and making a run to the local pharmacy. That would have also gone as expected—find the pharmacy, ask for the pill, purchase it at the register, head out—until it didn’t.

“I can’t give that to you.”

The pharmacy counter was just inside the sliding doors of the big box supermarket. I approached the pharmacist, mustering up the confidence to tell him and anyone passing by at that moment that I was looking for emergency contraception (EC). The pharmacist threw his head back and plainly said, “I can’t give that to you.” His words hung in the air over the boxes of allergy medicines, heartburn relievers, and decongestants. Dumbfounded and nervous, I shuffled away from the counter and headed back into the parking lot, where my romantic chariot awaited. Together, we tried to figure out why. We weren’t sure, but this much was clear: I wouldn’t be buying EC at this specific grocery store. I was too afraid to go back in and ask for it again, or ask what the problem was. We found another chain store and drove over. Second time around, no problem.

I suspect that what happened was what’s called a “pharmacy refusal”—when a pharmacist will not provide a medication because of their personal beliefs. Apparently the state I was visiting had “a broadly worded refusal policy.” Levonorgestrel-based EC should be available over the counter with no age restrictions, which means that you should hypothetically be able to ask any clerk in a store for it or even find it in the aisles. But refusals to dispense emergency contraception and birth control prescriptions can happen, whether by pharmacists or other kinds of health care providers.

Here’s what you can do if you are refused medication at a pharmacy or doctor’s office.

Remember that you are not alone.

While it can be confusing, annoying, frustrating, and scary, you are not alone. Refusals to provide birth control do happen—and they may even be more common than records show.

You can still get the birth control you need

In the last few years, laws regarding EC have undergone a number of changes. Each state varies in its specific regulations, and the way the regulations shake down can depend on whether you are at a hospital, clinic, or pharmacy. Some states allow private hospitals and pharmacists to refuse on the basis of their personal beliefs. It’s also possible that the provider you encounter is plainly misinformed. No matter your age or gender, you should be able to buy levonorgestrel-based EC pills over the counter. This guide, though a bit technical, has a run-down of emergency contraception policies per state where you can find out more about the state you live in.

Here are some details on the types of EC pills and how to get them at a store or online. When you can, it’s nice to have EC on hand ahead of time just in case. It’s super-easy to order it online—and some delivery services will even take insurance. If a time comes when you need EC, you’ll be glad you have it and can take it right away.

If a provider or pharmacist refuses a prescription for you, in the short-term, there are plenty of birth control options that don’t require a prescription. In the longer-term, you can try a different provider in your area or even get your prescription online.

You can take action if you want to

If you can, try learning more about your provider, clinic, hospital, or pharmacy before you go. Customer review tools such as Yelp, Google, and ZocDoc can be a good place to start learning more about the care you might receive. You can also use the same outlets to share negative experiences you have had with a particular provider or pharmacy. If you have been refused, it’s possible that others could have the same experience, too. Your fellow birth control seekers will thank you for speaking up.

If you are up to it, you also can file a complaint with your health care provider and the pharmacy board and complain to a store manager or corporate headquarters. If your provider failed to provide a prescription to you, try calling your health insurance company. They may be able to refund the cost of your visit and help you see another provider.

There are plenty of birth control options available—and it’s definitely more fun to have it covered when you need it. Whether you want to get birth control from a clinic, at the pharmacy, online, or through a service that lets you get it delivered straight to your door, you’ve got options. No matter what birth control method you use, consider purchasing EC before you need it, so you can have it as a backup just in case. Take it from me—the romantic getaway will be much more fun.

Claire Tighe is a writer whose work has appeared at The Village Voice, Bitch, Rewire, Belt Magazine, and others. She can’t help but talk about birth control everywhere she goes. Read more at clairetighe.com or follow her @ecofeminismo.

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