Brooks: The battle for reproductive rights moves to the front register

·4 min read

Jessica Pentz had every right to buy what she liked off the shelves of that Wisconsin Walgreens.

But your rights today can disappear tomorrow. The Supreme Court taught us that.

Especially when your right is someone else's wrong.

Pentz and her husband, Nate, drove to a particularly beautiful stretch of Wisconsin over the July 4th weekend. She'd forgotten her oral contraceptives back home in Minneapolis, so they pulled up to a drug store in Hayward and she headed inside to pick up a box of condoms and some other items.

"Oh, I can't sell those to you," she remembers a clerk named John telling her as she stepped up to the register with her purchases.

Confused, she gestured to the aisle where she'd picked up the box. Maybe John thought she'd carried in merchandise from another retailer into this Walgreens? That would have made more sense than his actual explanation.

"Well, we can sell that to you," he clarified. "But I will not, because of my faith."

When the Pew Research Center surveyed American attitudes about birth control, just 4% viewed contraception as morally wrong. Condoms protect us from disease and prevent unwanted pregnancies. What's not to like?

But last month, as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas joined the majority in erasing abortion rights for half the country, he revisited his shopping list of other "demonstrably erroneous" precedents the court could tackle next. Including the 1965 Griswold v. Connecticut ruling that guaranteed married couples a right to privacy in their bedrooms — including the right to buy and use contraceptives.

Generations after Griswold, Pentz stared in shock at a middle-age stranger who was telling her his personal opinions trumped her constitutional rights.

"I told him, 'That's none of your business,' " she said. "He said, 'Well I'm sorry, this is what my faith demands.' "

"You're not sorry," she remembers telling him, as a line of customers backed up behind her.

"I was the only woman in the store at the time," she said. "It was a very lonely moment."

The clerk waved his manager over, as Pentz waited with her perfectly legal purchases that were none of his business. He offered to ring up everything that wasn't a condom. She declined.

So the clerk asked his manager to ring him completely out of the register, to avoid any digital contact with a condom, Pentz said, and walked away with a smirk.

Asked for comment, Walgreen Co. responded: "Our company policy allows team members to step away from completing a transaction to which they have a moral objection and refer the transaction to a fellow team member or manager who will complete the customer's request."

The Hayward store management declined comment. Social media suggests John the clerk may have been moved off the register and into a department less likely to bring him into direct contact with prophylactics.

Nate Pentz tweeted an account of the incident that has drawn more than 37,000 likes and infuriating accounts from other women who have clashed with store clerks and pharmacy staff over access to legal birth control.

As Jessica Pentz walked out of the store with her purchases, someone patted her shoulder. It was one of the customers who had been behind her in line.

"Hey, I saw all of that," said Alec Jeffery, another Minnesotan in Wisconsin for the weekend with his family. The two had never met, but Jeffery had heard the exchange.

"It was complete [expletive]," he told her, "and you handled that way better than I would have."

Jeffery confirmed Pentz's account – right down to the clerk's smug expression.

"She was being very respectful in her discourse," said Jeffery, who reached out to the couple on Twitter. "She was just asserting, 'It's none of your business. I'm purchasing this. Your beliefs shouldn't impact what I can do.' And the guy was pushing back against that."

Jessica and Nate Pentz celebrated their 17th anniversary on Friday. Until that day in Hayward, Jess Pentz had assumed she was past the age where other people had any interest or concern — or control — over her birth control.

She thinks about how much more humiliating the experience would have been for a younger, less self-assured customer. She wonders if the clerk would have said anything if her husband had been the one to approach the counter with a box of condoms in his hand.

She wonders if she has to be more careful now about where she shops and which states she visits.

Shopkeepers refusing service to anyone who doesn't meet their approval might sound like something that happens to other people in other places. A relic from the bad old days of segregated lunch counters and bigoted bakers who refused to decorate gay wedding cakes.

"I feel bad that I thought 'It won't happen to me,' " Pentz said. "But it did. It could happen to anyone."