One Man's (Somewhat Frantic and Almost Failed) Hunt for Emergency Contraceptive

One night late last year, Jason Melbourne walked into a CVS pharmacy in Mesquite, hoping against hope to walk out with an emergency contraceptive, or "the morning-after pill." It wasn't the morning after. He and his wife had their "accident" a few days before, and the 72-hour window in which EC is most effective was closing fast. The first four pharmacies he visited had told him they were out of stock.

He was finally referred to a CVS in Mesquite, some 15 miles away. They told him they had just one box left. But when he finally got there, the overnight pharmacist, Minni Matthew, told Melbourne she wasn't going to sell it to him.

In order for him to buy the meds, the pharmacist said, she'd need to talk to and see the ID of his wife, who was at home with their two young children. He asked why, and she pointed to the fine print on the medication's box, which says it can only be sold to someone age 17 or older. Melbourne pointed out that he was well over 17.

"I've bought this plenty of times in my life, and it's never been a problem," he said. "Are you telling me every other place I've bought it from has been wrong?"

Didn't matter, Matthew said, since the medicine obviously wasn't for him.

"Why don't you show me the law that says you can't sell this to a man?" Melbourne replied.

Things devolved from there. Melbourne Googled emergency contraception on his phone and confirmed that there was no law against selling the product to a man. He tried to show his phone to the pharmacist, he says, "but she didn't want to see it."

"You're the only person who has it in the city, and I've driven 15 miles to get here," Melbourne recalls telling her. "My wife is home with our 4-year-old and newborn son. She's breastfeeding. She can't drag my infant child out of the house and down here just to satisfy you."

At that point, Melbourne says, Matthew retreated behind the counter. He shouted after her, "You got a pillow, Minni? Because I'll be here all night. I'm not going anywhere until you show me a law against selling this to men."

A pharmacy technician, who gave his name only as "Robert," jumped in. He let Melbourne know that they don't sell emergency contraception to men because they might be giving it to "rape victims."

By then, Melbourne says, he was starting to "freak out."

"I'm standing in line trying to get something that's already a little controversial, a little embarrassing," he says. "It's for my wife. There are three customers behind me when the guy says that, so it looks like I'm a piece of shit now."

Matthew then tried to tell Melbourne that the real reason he couldn't buy the drug was because it was Plan B, the brand name, and that previously he'd always bought the generic version of the drug.

"What does this have to do with anything? It's the same drug," Melbourne, a full-time student who happens to be entering nursing school in the fall, shot back. He called his wife and put her on the phone with the pharmacist, but that wasn't enough. Melbourne then asked for Matthew to call her supervisor, but the supervisor said no, too. At that point, Melbourne's wife called a nearby Walgreen's, who agreed to sell him the medicine. Melbourne went there, bought it, then promptly filed a complaint with the ACLU for gender discrimination.

Lisa Graybill, the legal director at ACLU of Texas, says that while denying emergency contraception to a man isn't technically illegal, "it's my understanding it's contrary to the FDA guidelines. They say the medication is available to people over the ages of 17." (Update 1/9/12: Graybill adds, via email, "While the question of whether it is illegal to discriminate against men in the sale of emergency contraception has not, to my knowledge, been decided by any Texas court to date, the FDA guidelines make it absolutely clear that EC may be purchased without a prescription by men and women over the age of 17.")

Graybill says that refusing to sell EC to men on the grounds they may give it to minors is "misguided," as she put it after a polite, diplomatic pause. "I'm not aware of a single case of a man reportedly buying it to push on his underage pedophile victim," she says. She's also not aware of men buying EC to force on people they've just raped.

"I don't know where these ideas comes from," she says. "I'm not telling you there's never a case that that's happened, but I'm not aware of any. That's a sensational story that would get coverage if someone was criminally accused of doing that."

The ACLU's been down this road before. They received reports in July of 2010 that Walgreens stores in Texas, Mississippi and Oklahoma were refusing to sell EC to men. The ACLU called Walgreens out publicly, which seemed to solve the problem.

In an email, CVS spokesman Mike DeAngelis insisted to Unfair Park that they've already responded to the incident and appropriately briefed their stores on official company policy.

"CVS/pharmacy's policy is to follow FDA regulations for the sale of emergency contraception, which allows this product to be sold without a prescription to customers who are at least 17 years old, regardless of gender," he wrote. "It is our pharmacists' responsibility to ensure that all customer needs are promptly and completely satisfied. As such, there is no company policy that prevents the sale of emergency contraception to a male customer."

But DeAngelis was referring to a similar incident in Houston, which he called "isolated" (and which our sister paper wrote about just last month). We told him that actually we were talking about the incident in Mesquite. We also informed DeAngelis that we'd spoken with Angela Soto, the store manager of that particular Mesquite CVS. Though she wasn't specifically aware of the incident with Melbourne, she confirmed to us that as she understood it, it's "store policy" not to sell EC to men, "because we have to prove that whoever we sell it to is not any minor person."

We pointed out that Melbourne was over 17. "Well, that's the issue," she replied. "We don't know who he's going to give it to." She said she had also heard that "other stores" won't sell EC to men on the grounds they may give it to women they've just raped.

"Those statements are contrary to our company policy," DeAngelis said when we relayed the manager's response. He said the company would look into it.

"I'm outraged," Melbourne says. "I chased this thing all over town, then I get accused of using this for rape, even after they've talked to my wife on the phone. It makes me feel like a piece of crap."

Graybill says that she "won't contest" that the store's policy, however logically shaky, may come from "a place of genuine concern" about underage girls. But ultimately, she says, "I think there's just a gap in communication from corporate to the people on the line."

"I really want them to be educated," Melbourne says. "I'm tired of having to tell a pharmacist who's in charge of a lot more drugs than that one what she can sell. They need to get it right. They need to do some follow up training. I don't want this crap happening to me again, or to someone else."

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