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Posts about Walgreens contraceptive policy lack context

July 25, 2022 GMT
FILE - This June 25, 2019, photo shows a sign outside a Walgreens Pharmacy in Pittsburgh. A Walgreens policy has been misrepresented on social media in recent days to suggest the company can deny customers contraceptives outright. Employees involved in transactions that conflict with their religious beliefs must ask another worker to finish the purchase. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
FILE - This June 25, 2019, photo shows a sign outside a Walgreens Pharmacy in Pittsburgh. A Walgreens policy has been misrepresented on social media in recent days to suggest the company can deny customers contraceptives outright. Employees involved in transactions that conflict with their religious beliefs must ask another worker to finish the purchase. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
FILE - This June 25, 2019, photo shows a sign outside a Walgreens Pharmacy in Pittsburgh. A Walgreens policy has been misrepresented on social media in recent days to suggest the company can deny customers contraceptives outright. Employees involved in transactions that conflict with their religious beliefs must ask another worker to finish the purchase. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
FILE - This June 25, 2019, photo shows a sign outside a Walgreens Pharmacy in Pittsburgh. A Walgreens policy has been misrepresented on social media in recent days to suggest the company can deny customers contraceptives outright. Employees involved in transactions that conflict with their religious beliefs must ask another worker to finish the purchase. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)
FILE - This June 25, 2019, photo shows a sign outside a Walgreens Pharmacy in Pittsburgh. A Walgreens policy has been misrepresented on social media in recent days to suggest the company can deny customers contraceptives outright. Employees involved in transactions that conflict with their religious beliefs must ask another worker to finish the purchase. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File)

CLAIM: Walgreens employees can refuse to sell customers contraceptives such as condoms if doing so conflicts with their religious beliefs.

AP’S ASSESSMENT: Missing context. Walgreens’ policy is that employees can decline to complete a customer’s transaction if they have religious or moral objections to the sale, but they must then hand it off to a co-worker or manager who can finish the transaction, a spokesperson for the pharmacy chain told The Associated Press.

THE FACTS: Walgreens’ policy of allowing individual employees to decline to sell items that conflict with their beliefs has been widely discussed online in recent days, after multiple customers shared popular posts about workers refusing to sell them contraceptives.

The stories sparked calls to boycott Walgreens, but some posts on the topic misrepresented the company’s policy by failing to explain that employees are still required to have another worker complete the sale. Others falsely suggested that the chain was refusing such sales entirely.

A July 19 Instagram post that was liked more than 4,000 times, for example, claimed: “Walgreens is hit with a wave of boycotts after it’s revealed that employees are permitted to refuse the sale of condoms and emergency contraceptives to customers because of their religious beliefs.” A similar post on Twitter by the same group was shared more than 30,000 times.

Other posts took the claim a step further. “In red States Walgreens is refusing 2 sell condoms,” claimed one tweet. “Walgreens said they can and will refuse to sell condoms and birth control,” said another.

Scott Goldberg, director of global corporate communications at Walgreens Boots Alliance, the parent company, clarified the policy in a statement to the AP.

“In the instance a team member has a religious belief that prevents them from meeting a customer need, we require them to refer the customer to another employee or manager on duty who can complete the transaction,” Goldberg wrote in an email.

Merrick Rossein, a law professor at the City University of New York, told the AP that Walgreens’ policy is legally sound under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states that employers must accommodate employees’ religious beliefs unless they create an undue burden for the employer.

Rossen, who specializes in employment discrimination, explained that whether such an accommodation for selling contraceptives would be an undue burden to Walgreens could depend on where specific stores are located. In a big city, for example, a customer could go to another Walgreens location. But in a small town with only one or two employees on duty at the sole pharmacy, accommodating such an objection while fulfilling the company’s obligations to its customers could be difficult, he said.

If a pharmacist did not want to fill a prescription due to moral or religious beliefs and there was not another employee who could fill it, Goldberg told the AP that “if this rare instance would occur, we would make sure that our patient gets their medication if it means transferring the prescription to another Walgreens location.”

These assertions have surfaced following the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last month to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling, ending constitutional protections for abortion. The decision has led to abortion bans in eight states with more expected to follow.

Mara Gandel-Powers, director of birth control access and senior counsel for reproductive rights and health at the National Women’s Law Center, told the AP that many people are unsure of how Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, the case that overturned Roe, will affect their access to contraceptives. She said that having an employee refuse to sell customers contraceptives may lead people to think they can no longer access them.

“We know a lot of people are confused about what the Dobbs case meant and I think there are people who have questions about what the impact on birth control was,” she said. “And the Dobbs case did not impact people’s ability to get birth control today.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance to retail pharmacies in mid-July that said those receiving federal money, such as from Medicare and Medicaid, cannot discriminate against customers seeking medication because doing so would be a form of sex discrimination, the AP reported. This includes contraceptives and drugs used in medication abortions.

Goldberg confirmed to the AP that these guidelines apply to the company and that Walgreens Boots Alliance is “currently reviewing them.”

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This is part of AP’s effort to address widely shared misinformation, including work with outside companies and organizations to add factual context to misleading content that is circulating online. Learn more about fact-checking at AP.