An Oklahoma woman was recently denied medical treatment after suffering a rape, because the attending physician had religious beliefs that apparently precluded her from doing her job properly. Specifically, the doctor refused to provide emergency contraception because her imaginary friend disapproves of it. This is apparently legal in Oklahoma, as it is in a few other states, under what are bizarrely called “conscience laws”–so named apparently because they enable people who don’t have one to use that as an excuse to refuse various medical services to people.
I have a problem with these kinds of laws, because they can interfere with people who are seeking medical prescriptions or treatment, with no reasonable justification for doing so. I acknowledge that some people have religious convictions that view contraception and abortion as wrong, but those people do not belong in professions where they may be called upon to provide either as part of their job. If they do choose to enter such professions, they should be responsible enough to set aside their personal feelings and do what they’re paid for. The notion that a pharmacist can refuse to fill a prescription on the grounds that they philosophically disagree with it is simply ridiculous. While most of these laws specifically limit themselves to contraception and abortion, some do not.
Not surprisingly, Mississippi has one of the most ludicrously worded “conscience” clauses, wherein subsection 5 of code 41-41-215 states that a doctor or nurse “may decline to comply with an individual instruction or health-care decision for reasons of conscience.” In theory, this would imply that a Scientologist working as a pharmacist could refuse anti-depressants–or any other psychotropic medication. Better yet, a Christian Scientist physician or pharmacist could spend all their working hours attempting to three-star every level of Angry Birds, pausing occasionally only to tell a patient or customer to go home and pray.
So where does this end? Do we extend to wait staff in restaurants the right to refuse to serve dishes in conflict with their moral beliefs? Should Jewish and Muslim servers be allowed to refuse to serve pork based dishes in accordance with their conscience? Can Hindus refuse to serve beef? Can vegans refuse to serve any meat dish at all? While veganism is not a religion per se, it does consist of a set of moral and ethical values that are no less valid than any set forth by any religion, and the fact that veganism doesn’t ostensibly base its ideology on the alleged edicts of some invisible being with supernatural powers does not make its precepts and ethos any less valid than these belief systems which do–quite the contrary, actually. At least the vegans have an argument that isn’t grounded in magic. Denying Vegans the same right of conscience is a tacit confession that these laws aren’t based in “conscience” at all, but rather in mysticism and superstition.
Again, I don’t begrudge people their right to these beliefs, I merely object to letting them become an excuse for refusing to provide services in a profession entered into voluntarily and with foreknowledge of what it could entail. there is a trust between a provider of a service and the person seeking a service, and that is violated whenever we allow someone to arbitrarily deny some services. This is particularly acute when denying those services can be life threatening.
A tolerant, plural society should allow for the free expression of personal beliefs, but not at the expense of the general welfare, and that shouldn’t be abused by allowing individual beliefs to interfere with the rights of those with different beliefs who need to avail themselves of the services of your chosen profession. If your religious convictions might interfere with your ability to perform your duties, you’re choosing the wrong career.