April 28, 2005
No Conscience Over The Counter

By Debra Saunders

You know the world is changing when the left -- which used to believe in respecting choice and requiring businesses to accommodate workers' personal preferences -- opposes choice and letting individual workers say no to tasks they find morally abhorrent, while the right -- which used to stand for letting businesses choose policies that promote their bottom line -- supports laws that could force employers to accommodate workers whose personal scruples prevent them from selling a product.

Yet that's exactly what you get as Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and other Democrats introduce bills that would force pharmacists to sell birth-control pills and emergency-contraception pills such as RU-486 and Plan B, even if the pharmacist is morally opposed to one of these forms of birth control.

The issue here isn't hypocrisy. The issue is that these laws can present serious consequences. Do Americans want the government to tell a business what it has to sell?

Some states have laws protecting pharmacists' conscientious objections. Do employees have a right to expect legal protections that allow them to say no to tasks to which they morally object?

And: How can feminists -- read Boxer -- say they support "choice," as they conspire to outlaw the right of pharmacists to make a choice they don't like?

Here's another question Washington rarely asks: Is this law even necessary? I asked the American Pharmacists Association how frequently people had trouble filling prescriptions. "We don't track that data," said Director of Government Relations Kristina Lunner. "Our understanding is that it's only been a handful of circumstances."

Boxer spokesman David Sandretti answered, "We have reports of refusals in a dozen states." Hmmmm. That could mean only a dozen people had trouble getting a prescription filled -- and they were free to find another pharmacy. So why make this a federal case?

(Critics say that options in rural areas aren't so available. If and where such a problem exists, let states or family-planning organizations provide an alternative.)

Supporters of such a law note reports that some pharmacists refused to return a prescription to a customer so she could have it filled elsewhere, or publicly lectured someone who went to a pharmacy expecting pills, not a sermon. If that's true, let these consumers haul the offender before the relevant pharmacy board, which can take action.

Or they could hire a lawyer. Let me note: I am a strong believer in birth control. That said, there is no need for a federal law -- not when cooler heads know how to protect the rights of both consumers and pharmacists.

The pharmacists' association has had a "conscience clause" since 1998 that allows pharmacists to not dispense prescriptions on moral grounds. It initially allowed pharmacists, like doctors, to refuse to dispense lethal medication under Oregon's assisted suicide law. It also helped dissenting pharmacists refuse to dispense lethal injection drugs for state executions. Lunner feels that the proposed federal legislation could obliterate these personal choices.

The conscience clause also allows pharmacists who object to dispensing birth control, RU-486 or Plan B from doing so, but in a way that protects the privacy rights and reasonable expectations of consumers.

Lunner repeated a nifty association slogan: "We support pharmacists stepping away, we do not support them stepping in the way." She added that pharmacists should refuse consumers "seamlessly" by getting someone else to fill a prescription or by politely not stocking a particular drug. In sum: "We do not support pharmacists using their role to harass patients."

Warning: If Boxer and Sen. Frank Lautenberg have their way, consumers could force dissenting pharmacists to stock particular drugs and dispense them.

Choice, once again, is a one-way street. Indeed, some in the anti-choice crowd can't even support the compromise of requiring pharmacists to find a co-worker or refer a customer to a nearby pharmacy to dispense a disputed drug.

And Boxer, who has railed against the "global gag rule" -- which prevents U.S. aid from funding family-planning groups that support abortion -- now embraces an American gag rule for drugstores. Explaining her opposition to the rule in an April 5 speech, Boxer noted, "We are proud of the fact that we don't tell our citizens what they can think, what they can say, if it's on their own dime."

She really means it, too -- as long as you're not a pharmacist.

Copyright 2005 Creators Syndicate

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Debra Saunders

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