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USA Today Publishes Dueling Op-Eds on “Conscience Clauses”

Robin Marty

In the battle between a right to obtain medical treatment and a right to deny that treatment because of "moral" objections, who wins?

Bodily autonomy! No, spiritual superiority! Who’s rights trump who’s freedom? It’s a question covered by USA Today with dueling op-eds regarding a pharmacist’s right to refuse to fill a prescription. However, the news organizattion’s attempt to “balance” isn’t nearly as even as it seems.

Supporting a woman’s right to access legal medical care without any sort of hassle, shame or added expense is Gretchen Borchelt, Senior Counsel and Director of State Reproductive Health Policy at the National Women’s Law Center.

Borchelt writes:

Laws should require all hospitals and pharmacies to establish a system to ensure that women in need of birth control, including in emergency situations, receive it without discrimination and delay. Individual healthcare providers with religious objections may be accommodated—for example, by making sure two pharmacists are on duty—but not at the expense of patient access to critical healthcare. This approach is consistent with long-standing protections for individual religious beliefs in the workplace. Refusing providers must treat patients with respect and ensure that patients receive care from another provider. They cannot—as one Wisconsin pharmacist did—leave customers waiting indefinitely for assistance in the store and on the phone. A patient should not even know her healthcare professional objects.

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Refusals often result in women feeling judged, shamed, angry, and vulnerable, and they reduce women’s trust in the healthcare system. Additionally, refusals violate informed consent, restricting women’s information and options. Delays or denials of emergency contraception can lead to pregnancy. For some women, pregnancy can entail severe health risks and even life endangerment. A refusal to provide emergency contraception can further traumatize an already traumatized woman—like a rape survivor. Refusals are most burdensome on people in rural areas, or those with low incomes and no job flexibility. For example, an Ohio woman refused emergency contraception at her local pharmacy had to drive 45 miles to find another pharmacy. And some women may be limited by their insurance plan to a particular pharmacy or provider.

Opposing the idea that a pharmacist shouldn’t get to pick and choose what sort of medication he or she wants to provide is Mark L. Rienzi, an attorney with The Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, one of the key players behind the lawsuits against the Affordable Care Act.

Rienzi argues:

In our free and diverse nation, we hold a wide variety of religious, ethical, and political views. As a result, we hold a wide range of opinions on controversial subjects like abortion, capital punishment, and assisted suicide. Medical professionals are no different: They are free and diverse people with diverse beliefs. This means that some will be willing to participate in certain activities—preparing a lethal injection for an execution, providing abortion-inducing drugs, or prescribing chemicals to help a cancer patient kill herself—and some will not.

In a free and pluralistic society, the best response to this diversity is the simplest one: live and let live. So long as they are legal, free people should be free to choose whether or not to participate in these procedures. There are many willing providers, and there is no need to force unwilling people to participate.

Obviously, USA Today set up the two opposing viewpoints as a way to impress their balance and equal handling of the issue. But are they? Rienzi had to reinforce his own stand with false equivalencies such as the death penalty and euthanasia in order to try and bolster his argument. But emergency contraception is exactly what it sounds like — contraception, the preventing of a pregnancy, not the ending of a life.

As Josh Freeman wrote over on his blog “Medicine and Social Justice”:

A lot of jurisdictions passed laws under the guise of the “conscience clause”, some even permitting pharmacists to not even dispense regular contraceptive pills. Which, of course, can be used for emergency contraception. And which, of course, is not abortion. But so much for the facts.

It is not coincidental that these restrictions have focused on women’s reproductive health. It appears that legislators’ concern is not about “right to life” (which many make a joke of with their opposition to anything that might help people after they are born), and fall into the arena of “women’s reproduction and the things associated with it, like sex, make us uncomfortable and so we don’t want to be involved with it”. In addition, there is persistent undertone of “…after all, these are women, people who do not understand how to take care of themselves and make their own decisions, so we have to do it for them.” This is pretty clearly part of the agenda of the religious right – limiting the ability of women to make their own decisions about their bodies.

A “conscience” objection, if it should ever apply, can only have weight when it comes to drugs that literally would end a life, not prevent a pregnancy from occurring. However, it is more and more obvious that conscience is really about imposing a religious belief on women they believe aren’t adhering to their moral standards.

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