I was thrilled to learn that Washington State will be creating new rules for pharmacists who have conscientious objections to providing services or products they find morally objectionable. It will allow pharmacists to refuse to sell anything or provide services that go against their conscience and deeply held beliefs.
The reason for the new rules was because of a lawsuit concerning a pharmacy that, against the objections of the state, refused to stock or dispense the Plan B morning-after pill, based on their belief that life is sacred from the moment of conception and the pill can sometimes work as an abortifacient.
This is a great turnaround by both the state and the Pharmacy State Board, which for several years maintained that religious freedoms of pharmacies and pharmacists had to be restricted in order to ensure patient access to the morning-after pill.
In 2006, Pharmacy Board members unanimously supported a rule that would protect conscience for pharmacists and pharmacy owners. Shortly after, though, the board buckled under political pressure and mandated pharmacies to stock and dispense the medication despite any conscientious objections.
The board adopted this regulation even though it admitted it found no evidence that anyone in the state had ever been unable to obtain Plan B (or any other time-sensitive medication) due to religious objections.
In the aftermath, a pharmacy and two individual pharmacists filed suit to prevent the new regulation from forcing them out of their profession. The Becket Fund also came to their defence.
In its most recent filing, the state conceded that allowing pharmacists with conscientious objections to refer patients to other pharmacies “is a time-honoured pharmacy practice that is often in the best interest of patients, pharmacies and pharmacists, and [does] not pose a threat to timely access to lawfully prescribed medications.”
Although I do not advocate mandated referral, this is a clear victory for the profession and it sends a clear message to all: The state and professional boards ought to remain neutral in matters of faith and morals as they relate to individual conscience, in so far as there is no threat to public safety or to the common good.
While the state plays an important role in ensuring the health, peace, morality and safety of its citizens, it should not use its power in a dictatorial way, imposing limits on individual conscience in legitimately disputable matters.
But is this not a case of a religious pharmacist or store owner imposing his or her values on others, and will it not cause great inconvenience to customers, which some would argue should be a professional’s first priority?
To the question of fairness I would answer that justice is for all. In any agreement, one party must not be oppressed at the expense of another. In the case of the Plan B provision, both parties can be readily respected by placing the onus on provincial pharmacy boards to provide information on non-dissenting providers via toll-free numbers.
Some might argue that inconvenience is a form of oppression. But isn’t it a greater oppression to ask one to betray deeply held beliefs than walk a few extra blocks?
A version of this article was originally published in “Holy Post”, the religion blog of the National Post.