April 7, 2005
The Right to Choose or The Power to Compel?

By Steve Chapman

Abortion-rights advocates cherish the right of choice. But not all choices are created equal. People who uphold a woman's right to make her own reproductive decisions want to deny others the right not to take part in those decisions. The demand for freedom has been turned into a pretext for compulsion.

The issue arises because some pharmacists, acting under the protection of state laws, have declined to dispense morning-after pills and oral contraceptives, which they see as a form of abortion. Women with prescriptions for these medicines have to take them to pharmacists who feel differently.

But "pro-choice" groups think pharmacists have no right to choose. "The role of a pharmacist is to dispense medicine, not morality," says Tracy Fischman, vice president for public policy at the Chicago office of Planned Parenthood.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich couldn't agree more. He's issued an emergency regulation that leaves little discretion to pharmacies, regardless of the moral sentiments of their pharmacists. If a woman brings in a prescription for morning-after pills or birth control pills, he declared, "the pharmacy will be expected to accept that prescription and fill it. No delays. No hassles. No lectures." If that means a small pharmacy has to keep an extra pharmacist on duty at all times, too bad.

Illinois, like several other states, has a "Health Care Right of Conscience" law, which says doctors, nurses and other health care providers can't be required to provide medicines, procedures or services that are "contrary to their conscience."

The language of the law is broad enough to suggest that pharmacists are covered by it. But when a Chicago pharmacist declined on two occasions to fill a prescription for morning-after pills, Planned Parenthood staged a protest that gained national attention.

The New York Times, which defends the right of women to control their own bodies by ending their pregnancies, thinks pharmacists have no right to control their own bodies by refusing to dispense certain pills. It editorialized, "This is an intolerable abuse of authority by pharmacists who have no business forcing their own moral or ethical views onto customers who may not share them." By this logic, however, customers are entitled to force their moral or ethical views onto pharmacists who may not share them.

In a free society, writers are allowed to write, and publishers to publish, material that others find dangerous, immoral or offensive. But neither they nor readers have a right to insist that bookstores carry what they produce. They are obliged to find others who are prepared to cooperate with them. And if that means their work goes unsold and unread, so be it.

The same principle of voluntary cooperation should govern this dispute. As long as morning-after pills are legal, women are entitled to buy them from willing sellers. But that shouldn't allow them to force transactions on sellers who are not willing.

To impose this duty on pharmacists puts a unique burden on them. Doctors, after all, aren't forced to write prescriptions for morning-after or contraceptive pills. Even under the governor's order, pharmacy owners are free not to carry such drugs. The only people denied all choice by the governor's regulation are pharmacists.

But "pro-life" pharmacists and their supporters are guilty of the same offense as their critics -- forcing some people to accommodate their choices even if they disagree. The conscience law compels drug store owners to employ pharmacists who refuse to perform some of the normal functions of the job.

Drug stores might rather put customer needs above the preferences of employees. But that choice is off the table. Under the conscience law, employers involved in health care can't discriminate against employees who refuse to do something they find morally objectionable.

Diversity is one of the celebrated values of modern American society. But in this case, what each side demands is state-mandated uniformity. Abortion-rights advocates want every pharmacy that carries oral contraceptives to dispense them regardless of the moral view of the pharmacists. Abortion opponents want every drugstore to let pharmacists decide what drugs they will dispense, regardless of the moral views or business interests of the owner.

So here's a compromise: Let individual pharmacies decide what drugs to dispense, and let pharmacists who disagree find other places to work. Let patients who can't get their prescriptions filled at one pharmacy go to another pharmacy with a different policy.

That would create some inconveniences, sometimes, for some people. But it's a small price to pay for protecting the freedom of everyone.

2005 Creators Syndicate

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Steve Chapman

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