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Pharmacists' Rights of Conscience

by David Stevens, MD, MA (Ethics)

Some pharmacists in Illinois may soon have to decide between their job and their conscience. In 2009, Governor Rod Blagojevich issued an executive order requiring pharmacists to dispense all legally written prescriptions, including those for the morning-after pill. Some pro-life pharmacists had referred those prescriptions to another pharmacist or pharmacy after an American College of Obstetrics & Gynecology journal article revealed that 38% of the time the pills acted by preventing implantation of the developing embryo. They don’t want to dispense the morning-after pill for the same reason they won’t drive drunk. They don’t want to take the risk of killing another human being.

The right of conscience issue is not limited to pharmacists. Medical and physician assistant students are taught in some schools that they must refer patients who want an abortion to other doctors. Some have declined to participate in executions by lethal injection or refused to prescribe a lethal dose of barbiturates to a patient requesting assisted suicide. Faith-based hospitals in Alaska have been told they must do abortions or they will lose state funds.

Do healthcare providers have a right to follow their conscience? The First Amendment of the Bill of Rights directly addresses this issue when it says, “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” One of the foundations for the establishment of the United States was the freedom to live according to each individual’s moral and religious precepts. Our founding fathers further explained their desire on this issue. John Madison stated, “Conscience is the most sacred of all property.” Thomas Jefferson added when speaking on the rights of government: “The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God."

If we don’t protect the right of conscience of those in medicine, we head down a dangerous path. Do we want professional schools to strip our future doctors of all ethical convictions that have not even been approved by government? You do not give up your personal morality when you earn a professional license and denying the constitutional freedom of health professionals ultimately threatens the constitutional rights of everyone.

In response to this issue, Congress passed the Weldon Amendment last year guaranteeing right of conscience protection--but only to physicians. Pro-abortion groups are now challenging that law in court. It is ironic that some are willing to trample on the individual liberties of others while marching under the banner of choice.

Doctors must be in the forefront of defending the right of conscience of all healthcare professionals. If we are silent now, there will soon be no one left to stand with us when our right is threatened.