April 12, 2006

Conscientious objectors: pharmacists and pacifists

Last summer, a handful of pharmacists around the country refused to distribute birth control because they thought the use of birth control was the same thing as an abortion. Now, it's a simple matter of fact that they're either idiots or defining 'pregnancy' completely differently from the AMA, but let's suppose for the sake of argument that one of the ways birth control works is by preventing a fertilized egg from implanting in the uterine lining, so they have vaguely reasonable grounds for saying the pill is immoral. At the time, quite a few of us made jokes about Christian Scientist and Jehovah's Witness pharmacists refusing to distributing any drugs whatsoever. Well, leave it to movement conservatives to prove that truth can be as strange as fiction: pharmacists are refusing women their prescribed drugs for no other reason than that the drugs were prescribed by clinics that perform abortions. In certain cases, these drugs including vitamins taken only by pregnant women.

Now, unlike the representative of PP, I think it's my job (qua philosopher) to be as charitable as possible to these pharmacists. So, while I'm not willing to grant their position that abortion is evil, I am willing to grant that they are entitled to hold that belief. I am also more than willing to grant that there had better be very, very good reasons for requiring someone to do something they think is evil. Hence, if we are going to require pharmacists to violate their deeply-held beliefs, we'd better have some damn good reasons why. In particular, requiring these pharmacists to violate their beliefs must be the 'least worst' option of all the ones available.

I think a good analogy is with conscientious objectors in times of war: if we're going to require pacifists to take up arms -- that is, if we're going to require them to violate their deepest principles and most sincere beliefs -- it had better be because something like the Third Reich is going to steamroll over us unless everyone joins the fight, and we can't put the pacifists to work doing something else, eg, growing food.

Now, has this burden been met in the plan to simply strip out conscience clauses, as the PP representative (among others) seems to want to do? I think we must conclude not, as there is an alternative plan that both allows pharmacists to conscientiously object to the distribution of birth control and allows women access to birth control: require pharmacies to distribute properly prescribed drugs within a reasonable amount of time. Pharmacists who refuse to distribute certain drugs to certain customers won't be required to violate their principles, but will also be legally required not to interfere with the distribution of the drugs; more specifically, they will generally not be allowed to harass or insult a customer, and another pharmacists will have to be on-shift with them so the drugs can still be distributed. Similarly, pacifists should generally be exempted from a military draft, but can be legally punished for sabotaging military equipment.

Some of these pharmacists may still be unhappy, however, and feel the desire to actively interfere in the distribution of these drugs. This, I think, is like the monkeywrencher or pacifist saboteur. Here the difference between legal and ethical comes into play: on the assumption that the use of birth control is always evil, then it seems natural to conclude that interfering with the use of birth control by others is ethically permissible or even required, provided the interference is proportional (ie, you can't claim it's ethical to kill someone to prevent them from using birth control, but it could be ethical to burn each carton of pills in the alley as soon as it arrives). But because there is no legal argument to accept that assumption and legal arguments to reject the conclusion, it is legally impermissible to interfere, and such interference can be punished by the state (requiring the pharmacist to pay for damages, etc.). This, then, is civil disobedience, and while I can neither morally nor legally condone this sort of action by these pharmacists, I do believe it is a consistent position for them to take. Similarly, while I happen to believe that the actions of monkeywrenchers interfering with logging are generally morally permissible, this is because I share certain environmentalist background assumptions and values, and I don't presume (here) to have a good legal argument for those values or the permissibility of monkeywrenching, so I believe the state can also compel saboteurs to pay damages to the owners of the equipment they destroyed.

But none of this applies to the shit the article is talking about. I can see absolutely no rational defence for those actions; they're literally insane, and figuratively batshit insane.

Via Bitch, Ph.D.

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