A young woman from Saguenay, Que., says she left a local pharmacy feeling shamed after a pharmacist refused to sell her emergency oral contraception, better known as the morning-after pill, because it went against his religious beliefs.
"I felt bad, I felt really judged," said the 24-year-old woman, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.
The woman said the pharmacist told her prescribing her the pill "was not in his values" and told her to either go to another store or wait around for another pharmacist to show up who could prescribe it to her.
"I was a bit flabbergasted, I didn't know what to say," the woman said of her experience at the Jean Coutu pharmacy in the borough of Chicoutimi.
She finally got access to the pill by going to another nearby pharmacy, but two days after the event, the woman said she's still recovering from the emotional distress it caused her.
Pharmacist's rights protected under Canadian charter
For maximum effectiveness, the emergency oral contraception pill should be taken 12 to 24 hours after intercourse, according to Familiprix, a Canadian group of independent pharmacists.
The woman said she told the pharmacist that her situation was time sensitive and that she needed to take the pill that day, but "he wouldn't do anything for me."
She said she was lucky her employer allowed her to take some time off to wait for service at another pharmacy where she finally received the medication.
The pharmacist in question declined Radio-Canada's request for an interview, but he acknowledged that this was not the first time he has refused to provide this service.
In a statement to CBC Montreal, Jean Coutu Group said while it recognizes the right of women to have access to the professional services they want, "the Charter of Rights and Freedoms allows a professional to refuse to perform an act that would go against his or her values."
According to Quebec's Order of Pharmacists (OPQ), in these cases, the pharmacist is obliged to refer the patient to another pharmacist who can provide them this service.
In the case where the pharmacy is located in a remote area where the patient does not have the possibility of being referred elsewhere, the pharmacist has a legal obligation to ensure the patient gets the pill.
The OPQ said that while it cannot speak about this young woman's specific case, "one thing is certain, in such a situation, the patient must not feel judged and must be taken care of by the professional, even if they do not personally provide the service."
The OPQ said patients can always file a complaint with its investigations department if they believe a pharmacist had committed a fault.
A setback for women's rights: local women's group
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, ending the constitutional right to abortion, a women's rights group in Saguenay says this situation feels like yet another setback for women's rights.
"We want to make sure that we're not regressing on these issues, that's very important," said Gisèle Dallaire, the co-ordinator for the Table de concertation des groupes de femmes au Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean.
Dallaire said seeking emergency oral contraception is already a tough decision to make and being refused it can be discouraging.
"You're in a weak position and you have to go and ask and then you're facing a refusal," she said. "I was very sad for [this woman] ... that she needed to take another action and to go to another pharmacist [and] maybe receive another refusal."
Dallaire said the pharmacy needs to do more to warn women seeking this sort of contraceptive care that this pharmacist will not provide them with it so that they don't face the same situation.
For the 24-year-old, she said it should be her choice to take the pill and she shouldn't be made to feel ashamed about it.
"I don't think it's the pharmacist's place to make us feel that way," she said. "It's my decision to make, it's not his. It's my body," she said.
The woman is considering filing a complaint with the OPQ. In the meantime, she has reported the situation to Jean Coutu's customer service department.