Convenience of Some Preferred to the Consciences of Others

pharmacist
Racorn

The United States Supreme Court recently refused to hear an appeal from Washington state pharmacists who have religious objections to dispensing Plan B pills and other emergency contraceptives.

The judges’ order leaves in place rules first adopted in 2007 requiring that pharmacies must fill lawful prescriptions, but individual pharmacists with moral objections can refer patients to another pharmacist in the same store.

Stormans Inc., the owners of a grocery store in Olympia, Washington, that includes a small pharmacy, sued along with two pharmacists to protect the consciences of the many pharmacists who work alone and thus cannot comply with the requirement to refer within the same store.

Among the arguments offered for the Ninth Circuit’s decision, which was thus left standing, were these, as reported in The Atlantic:

“While the owners of Storman’s argued that they would have been happy to refer customers to other pharmacies, ‘Speed is particularly important considering the time-sensitive nature of emergency contraception and of many other medications,’ the Ninth Circuit said. ‘The time taken to travel to another pharmacy, especially in rural areas where pharmacies are sparse, may reduce the efficacy of those drugs.’ Customers also shouldn’t get sent somewhere else when they ask for medication…because ‘referrals could lead to feelings of shame in the patient that could dissuade her from obtaining emergency contraception altogether.’”

Feminists generally applauded this decision, as they did the Supreme Court’s letting it stand. And I feel genuinely sorry for any woman feeling the need for such a pill.

As a feminist myself, however, I’m troubled by the implicit low view of women’s responsibility and agency implied here.

This drug is provided for women who have engaged in sex without any, or adequate, prophylaxis against pregnancy. There cannot be very many women nowadays, even young ones, who do not know how babies are made. So except in extreme instances, the women in view knowingly engaged in an activity that can result in pregnancy without undertaking any of a variety of means that are readily available to avoid pregnancy.

Such women nonetheless find themselves worried the next day, or possibly the day after, about pregnancy. (The drug in question is effective only a brief time after intercourse, so this short time frame is the only relevant one.) They go to a small pharmacy and are refused the drug. So now what?

So they go to a different one. It might take them a little while, possibly even part of a day’s journey by car, bus, or train. But the vast majority of the population lives near more than one pharmacy. Thus very few women are in peril of not getting this drug in a timely way.

They might be inconvenienced, yes. But what is the convenience of one citizen, who is responsible for the situation, against the conscience of another, who is not?

And those unfortunates in remote regions about whom the Ninth Circuit is so worried? Women who live in such places might add “have birth control available” to their list of prudent accommodations to that remoteness, just as they pack snow shovels and warm clothes in their car trunks in winter.

They might be inconvenienced, yes. But what is the convenience of one citizen, who is responsible for the situation, against the conscience of another, who is not?

Put this way, it begins to appear that this decision really isn’t about the women involved, who are not the helpless children the Ninth Circuit seems to think they are. Nor is the court considerate of the pharmacists involved, who will be forced to choose between conscience and career.

No, the decision of both courts seems to be about insisting on one and only one view of contraception in public life, with conscientious objections relegated strictly to one’s private beliefs.

Even if you like the idea of morning-after pills being readily available, you’ve got to be at least a little worried about this creeping, insistent orthodoxy.

Will our society honour conscientious objection at all, about anything, anymore?

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John serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. He is the author of nine books, the editor of four more, and the author of over 600 articles, book chapters, and reviews in academic publications, major newspapers, and magazines. His writings range over history, sociology, philosophy, theology, ethics, and comparative religion. He has spoken throughout North America, in the United Kingdom, and in China, India, Israel, Korea, Malaysia, Australia, and New Zealand. His commentary on religion and contemporary culture has been featured by major broadcast and print media as diverse as The New York Times, The Atlantic, ABC News, CBC Radio, Time, and Reader’s Digest.

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