Sunday, February 26, 2006


Acts of conscience by health professionals: the profession is not the point

Dahlia Lithwick compares the situation of the California physicians who walked out on an execution to which they declined to be an accessory with the current debate over Wal-Mart pharmacists in Massachusetts who refused to fill prescriptions for birth control or morning-after pills ("Wal-Mart and the Death Penalty," Washington Post, 26 February 2006, page B3). Lithwick makes a case for distinguishing the rights and obligations inuring to physicians from those applicable to pharmacists. This analysis is beside the point. The primary difference, to expand on a perspective given in a letter to the editor in the Post, is like the difference between a movie multiplex that doesn't show R or NC-17 rated films, and a theatre that does show them, and has several currently playing, but has a ticket agent who for her own reasons of conscience refused to sell tickets to those films.

State officials seeking to have the California execution carried out didn't go to some doctor store that openly offers lethal injection services and then find that the doctors supplied to them, for their own personal reasons, wouldn't do what they'd been contracted out to do. The physicians are free agents, and they can choose to take an assignment or not. The pharmacists aren't in the same position. Wal-Mart doesn't have a policy against filling prescriptions for birth control, so customers visiting a Wal-Mart store in search of birth control have a reasonable expectation of being able to obtain it. Individual employees have no business derailing this transaction. That would be an awful lot of power to place in their hands. If the requirements of the job are at odds with their personal beliefs, then they ought to find a job that doesn't require them to subordinate their conscience. An Orthodox Jew won't take a job that requires working on the Sabbath. A vegetarian who believes "meat is murder" shouldn't apply for employment as a server at a steak restaurant, nor should the restaurant have to hire her if, perversely, she does.

Another difference worth noting is that a woman seeking a morning-after pill is operating within narrow time constraints and under duress. The state of California can hardly argue that it desperately needs to put a convict to death, or that it needs to do so now.

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