Conscience For Me But Not For Thee: The Case for Pro-Life Docs and Pharmacists

August 22, 2008

In two recent threads over at Pharyngula, one about a poll and the other about some recent comments from HHS Secretary Mike Leavitt, I’ve gotten myself caught up in some pretty heated exchanges over the issue of pro-life doctors, and their impact on reproductive choice and access to health care.

This controversy has been building for some time, as legislatures and now licensing boards are increasingly confronting the question of whether, and to what degree, the consciences of anti-abortion doctors should be protected. More and more women are startled to find local doctors and pharmacists refusing what they had assumed were basic and perfectly legal prescriptions.

Now, as far as the original issues go, most of the things that anti-abortion docs, pharmacists, and their advocates are currently pushing for are indeed overboard. The idea that a doctor can refuse to refer a patient to another doctor, or refuse to even give them information, is unjustifiable. And if a CVS pharmacy wants to offer the pill to its customers, then it has all the cause in the world to only hire and retain staff that are willing to dispense it. It’s simply not unjust discrimination to fire someone if their conscience prevents them from doing what the employer needs done, and no reasonable (reasonable on the employer’s terms) accommodation can be found.

Unfortunately, many of my pro-choice compatriots have, I think the wrong idea themselves, asserting principles of their own that go far beyond the right of employers to set the conditions of employment. When it comes down to it, it seems that many people believe that doctors who refuse on ethical and/or religious grounds to prescribe birth control pills, pharmacists that refuse to fill such orders, or even, it seems ob/gyns that resist performing elective abortions should either ignore their consciences or essentially leave their chosen professions. But the justifications given for this harsh ultimatum are, I think fatally flawed.

Two principles in particular are, I think twisted or misapplied to this situation: the idea that pro-life doctors are forcing things on their patients, and the idea that pro-life doctors and pharmacists aren’t doing “their job.”

Doctors Have No Right To Force Their Choices on People

As general principle, this idea Is central to most cannons of medical ethics and medical license boards. And justly so. It’s based, first and foremost, on the idea that people of sound mind have an absolute right to accept or refuse medical care, and to pick the treatment plans they are comfortable with under the advice of the physician. It’s based on a laudable ethic of not forcing something on someone without their consent.

The problem is that this ethic seems to fall by the wayside whenever people start considering the views of people they don’t like. Or it gets implausibly twisted, so that the “forcees” are claiming to be the victims. It takes a true mangling of language to assert that someone not doing something for you constitutes forcing you to do anything. But that appears to be precisely what it going on here.

Consider the common assertion that doctors who refuse to prescribe birth control, especially when they practice in far-flung areas and stats that offer little choice in doctors to begin with, are “forcing” their own preachy choices on the patient. But are they?

When a family doctor sets up a shingle in a small town, people’s access to health care improves in real terms. But now suppose that the doctor refuses to prescribe birth control or perform elective abortions. Has the doctor actually “forced” anything on anyone? His or her values? His or her services?

In virtually all routine situations, no. The people in the town are certainly no worse off than they were before the doctor arrived. The doctor’s existence provides some benefits, but perhaps not all the benefits they’d want. Demand that the doctor violate his or her conscience or else find another profession, and you might well end up with no nearby doctor at all. The same goes for a hypothetical “pro-life” pharmacy.

Yes, people in that situation lack access to things they want and need, and are protected by law. But that’s the exact same situation they were in before the anti-abortion/anti-pill doctor set up shop.

So what’s the solution? Well, if we really care about access to birth control, if that’s really something we consider to be a moral value or even an assured, positive right, who has the responsibility to supply it? Does that responsibility fall almost entirely on the doctor who thinks it’s immoral, just because he happens to be the most local? Or does it fall on all the people who think it’s a basic right? If you answered the former, I have to admit that I’m simply flabbergasted.

The situation here is a little like the often confused outrage at “scalpers” who, during a disaster, offer things like water bottles for sale at ridiculously inflated prices. These people are routinely condemned as greedy, and they certainly are. But somehow it never occurs to all these outraged moralists that, if people in a disaster have some sort of positive right to receive water (free or cheaply), that this right cannot possibly be a burden and a responsibility that falls on some people more than others. At least the scalpers are offering water for sale at all. Rarely have any of the outraged people rushed over to offer even a drop of their own water, at any price. If the scalpers are as greedy as their inflated prices, then the moralists shaking their heads are themselves infinitely greedier.

Blaming the scalpers for a lack of available water, or blaming pro-life doctors for lack of available abortion services and birth control, is, in the end, nothing more than crude scapegoating. It takes the focus, rather conveniently I might add, off of the collective failure for which the moralists themselves are implicated.

And the further irony is that the moralists’ proposed solutions often wouldn’t really help anyone overall. Scalping only works when there is an extremely limited water supply: i.e. there’s too little water to go around in the first place. If scalpers simply gave away all their supplies for free, there would still be too little water: in fact, in the end, there would be exactly the same number of people with and without water. All that would be different is the method by which these people would be chosen (and the usual alternative, first come=first serve, is arguably no more “fair” than rationing the supply by price, which at least has some built in mechanism for assessing people’s relative need for the water).

Likewise, if anti-abortion/anti-pill physicians and pharmacies left the business, as their foes seem to suggest they should, there would still be the same shortage of medical care and lack of access to birth control that we started with.

From where I sit, that makes this issue look a heck of a lot more like an act of partisan revenge than a sound policy or pro-patient principle.

If They Don’t Want to Do What (I Say) the Job Entails, They Should Find Another Job!

This second principle, uttered as if it were an obvious truism, is in fact an utterly bizarre essentialism. Obviously, if we are talking about an employer defining what “the job entails” and finding someone wanting, there’s no problem. But this isn’t the sense in which some people mean “the job.” They mean it in a more cosmic sense: turning mere convention into Platonic form.

Who says that the role of being an ob/gyn, a family doc, or a pharmacist must involve prescribing or dispensing contraceptives? What defines that role such that it’s supposedly essential to this or that specialty? Is this some sort of immutable law of the universe? No. To the extent that they are set and regulated at all, the required roles of various professions (and the permitted variations) are set by committee or political process, not fate. And those debates have to deal with the very political and ethical questions we’re already considering.

Thus, asserting that elective birth control must be part of the role of certain doctors is little more than a begged question. If you regard a fetus or even a fertilized embryo to be a being with moral rights, then harming it without dire need would not legitimately be part of the role of any physician. Reject that idea, and it’s a legitimate part of reproductive health and choice. I certainly have my opinions, but I also have a respect for the importance of social pluralism. And we cannot simply presume anyone’s opinion from the get go when determining what medical ethics demand or deny.

A more reasonable question is: can anti-abortion doctors be reasonably accommodated into our medical system with their existence causing serious additional harm to anyone? I think the answer is yes.

My opponents disagree. They imagine Jehovah’s Witnesses as ER docs who then refuse to transfuse blood to car accident victims. But these examples are absurd. No one would hire such a doctor to such a position in the first place, and if one did, it’s unlikely it could be licensed to accept emergency patients (who are often in a very different situation than a person seeking a physician or going to a pharmacy). On the other hand, plenty of people in the United States not only would have no problem with seeing an anti-abortion ob/gyn, but would favor going to one. Is denying the possibility of this choice even in keeping with the respect for autonomy that underlies pro-choice politics in the first place? I think not.

The early pioneers of reproductive choice knew that making it a reality meant actually physically and financially getting doctors and products out to women everywhere. If choice is a positive right and not just a negative one (i.e. not merely something that the government cannot ban, but something that must actively be ensured, presumably by society itself) then it’s going to take a tall order of money, time, and resources to supply it. Butting heads with anti-abortion doctors and pharmacists, or demanding they conform or go out of business, isn’t even remotely the same thing.