The pharmacies are emerging at a time when a variety of health-care workers are refusing to perform medical procedures they find objectionable. Fertility doctors have refused to inseminate gay women. Ambulance drivers have refused to transport patients for abortions. Anesthesiologists have refused to assist in sterilizations.
The most common, widely publicized conflicts have involved pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control pills, morning-after pills and other forms of contraception. They say they believe that such methods can cause what amounts to an abortion and that the contraceptives promote promiscuity, divorce, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases and other societal woes. The result has been confrontations that have left women traumatized and resulted in pharmacists being fired, fined or reprimanded.
In response, some pharmacists have stopped carrying the products or have opened pharmacies that do not stock any.
The concerns raised by those pharmacists are among those I discuss in my upcoming article in Salvo 6 (due out in early September). I think they are legitimate, though not enough to rule out all contraceptive use, still I find such “Pro-Life” drugstores interesting. As the article notes, there are two conflicting issues here: One is the right of a business to decide for itself what to sell (and pharmacies are businesses), which seems to be pretty fundamental. Just because a customer wants a business to sell something doesn’t mean the business has any legal obligation to do so (though they obviously have an economic incentive). In an urban context where, presumably, anyone seeking contraception should have little trouble finding another drugstore that does stock them, this seems pretty indisputable. But what about in a rural context where there may only be one pharmacy within 20 miles, or where all the pharmacies in a county might conceivably adopt such a “Pro-Life” practice?
“We may find ourselves with whole regions of the country where virtually every pharmacy follows these limiting, discriminatory policies and women are unable to access legal, physician-prescribed medications,” said R. Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin lawyer and bioethicist. “We’re talking about creating a separate universe of pharmacies that puts women at a disadvantage.”
The article also quotes bioethicist Nancy Berlinger that “If you are a health-care professional, you are bound by professional obligations…You can’t say you won’t do part of that profession.” But I can’t see how this is true. Doctors routinely practice only one form of medicine or refuse to perform procedures that they consider unethical or dangerous. A pediatrician could not be held liable for refusing to perform brain surgery, nor should a gynecologist be required to perform abortions if she is morally opposed to them. Why should a pharmacist be any different? Granted, if they stocked contraceptives and simply refused to give them to certain customers, that would seem to be a form of discrimination and would likely be illegal. But to choose not to stock certain products seems within their rights, at least as long as customers have another option within reasonable driving distance.