American Pharmacies Providing Incorrect Information on Emergency Contraception

A recently published study found that pharmacies in five major US cities are giving young girls incorrect information about emergency contraception (EC).


 Two researchers posing as seventeen-year-old girls called nearly a thousand pharmacies in Austin, Portland, Philadelphia, Nashville, and Cleveland asking for access to emergency contraception. The researchers closely followed a script to test the pharmacists’ knowledge of EC.

The questions were very straight forward:

  • “Do you have EC available?”
  • “Can I buy it if I’m seventeen?”
  • “My friend said there was an age restriction; is that true?”
  • “Do you have to tell my parents if I buy it?”

The answers, however, were not.


Some pharmacies refused to sell EC based on religious reasons–indeed, a case in Washington State in 2012 set a precedent that privately-owned pharmacies are allowed to make that judgement call about whether or not they’d stock EC for themselves. Others tried to tell the researchers incorrectly that they would need a parent or guardian to sign, or that they’d have to call her parents. Some avoided the question altogether, saying that there was a long line and they weren’t comfortable answering the question while surrounded by people.

Many didn’t even know the correct information about the pill. But the fact is, it is perfectly legal for any female or male of any age to purchase emergency contraception, no matter what their age.

Was all of this misinformation just the result of pharmacists or pharmacy clerks who hadn’t studied up on the rules? Was it done intentionally to adhere to a moral or religious code?

If a pharmacist does not feel comfortable prescribing EC to someone, they have a legal right to refuse service in fourteen states (see the Guttmacher Institute link below for the laws in each state).


However, they should not lie about why they are refusing service. A simple, “I’m not comfortable doing this, please speak to my manager,” should suffice. Giving out incorrect information can be dangerous, and any pharmacy doing so should be ashamed of themselves, knowing that the scared young people they turn away could turn to much riskier alternatives. If that’s not enough to scare them, they could even be at risk for malpractice lawsuits.

If you find yourself in a situation where someone is refusing to sell you EC because of your age or gender, here are some steps you can take:

  1. Remain calm.
  2. Remind them that it is legal for any person of any age and gender to purchase Plan B One-Step.
  3. If they still refuse to sell it to you, ask to speak to their manager or another pharmacist.
  4. If they continue to refuse to sell, ask where you can go to find someone who will sell.
  5. Try another pharmacy, or Planned Parenthood. Stay away from anything that labels itself as a Crisis Pregnancy Center as they do not provide EC, even though they often claim to.
  6. If the pharmacy belongs to a larger company that might have a different policy, you can report them if you feel that you were treated unjustly.

Although the study was done in 2010, it would be interesting to see a redo done today, now that the age limit for buying emergency contraception has been repealed. Are there pharmacists still trying to incorrectly and illegally turn down girls in need? With even younger girls now able to access EC, no doubt there’s even more panic.

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[“State Policies in Brief: Emergency Contraception.” Guttmacher Institute. Guttmacher Institute, 1 Dec. 2013. Web. 27 Dec. 2013.

[Wilkinson, Tracey A., Gabriela Vargas, Nisha Fahey, Emily Suther, and Michael Silverstein. ““I’ll See What I Can Do”: What Adolescents Experience When Requesting Emergency Contraception.” Journal of Adolescent Health 54.1 (2013): 14-19. Print.]

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