Tuesday, April 19, 2005

THE PHARMACY ISSUE keeps growing. Now conservative religious pharmacists in Illinois are fighting Gov. Blagojevich on his emergency ruling requiring all pharmacies in the state to fill legal prescriptions for contraceptives.

"The governor is trying to make a decision that must be left to the pharmacy," said [State] Senator [Frank] Watson, whose family business, Watson's Drug Store in Greenville, Ill., does not stock the pill. "It's an infringement on a business decision and also on the pharmacist's right of conscience."

Why is this becoming such a huge issue now, especially since pharmacists who refuse to dispense emergency contraception are still relatively few compared to the total number of pharmacists in the U.S.? To me, the answer is: politics. The religious right is still a minority in terms of absolute numbers, but the influence they have gained within the Republican Party is way out of proportion to how many of them there are. Thanks to George W. Bush's pandering to the most extreme fundamentalist elements in the GOP, those elements exert frightening amounts of power to shape the social agenda in this country. That's why 12 states are now considering "conscience clause bills" for pharmacists, doctors, and other health care professionals -- but two federal bills, sponsored by Barbara Boxer and Frank Lautenberg respectively, that would require all legal prescriptions to be filled "are not expected to get very far," according to the Times article.

It seems that the "right of conscience" is a very selective thing. When the Colorado legislature passed a bill recently that would have required all hospitals, including Catholic ones, to tell rape victims about the availability of emergency contraception, Gov. Bill Owens vetoed it -- because, he said, "It is one of the central tenets of a free society that individuals and institutions should not be coerced by government to engage in activities that violate their moral or religious beliefs."

But when Camilo Mejia refused to return to Iraq because his experiences there convinced him that taking human life in war was morally wrong, he did not have any "right of conscience." Rather, he was viciously attacked for being irresponsible and a coward, not just by his commanding officers, but also by his chaplain --a man who, if I were taking bets, I would be willing to bet agrees with those pharmacists who think a pill that prevents a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterus is "taking a human life." In the end, the only way Camilo Mejia was allowed to exercise his right of conscience was from a jail cell.

And don't think that it's easier to exercise your right of conscience not to murder people in war if you do it before entering the military. In order to have his right of conscience recognized by the military, a man has to apply for conscientious objector status, which requires demonstrating in writing and personal testimony that he arrived at his beliefs through a specific process and that those beliefs have influenced his life in significant ways. The burden of proof is always on the individual to convince a skeptical and even hostile audience that his beliefs are sincerely held and spiritual or moral in nature. Can you imagine what the response would be if the American Pharmacists Association required pharmacists to apply for permission to refuse to fill legal prescriptions and to demonstrate that their beliefs were sincerely held?

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