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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Conscience clause: Pharmacists know best?

    “”If you can’t fulfill these obligations, it’s best to drop now.”” Outlining all pertinent dates and deadlines, a syllabus informs students of expectations and requirements to pass a class. In the same fashion, professions of great social responsibility require oaths to be sworn that govern professional standards and ethics. Like a student trying to explain a late paper, many medical professionals are objecting to medical regulations after the fact.

    On Dec. 19, 1996, Karen Brauer was fired from a Kmart pharmacy for refusing to distribute Micronor, a progestin-only form of birth control. President of Pharmacists for Life, Brauer hopes to instill a conscience clause in medical regulations across the country. The conscience clause would allow pharmacists to refuse distribution of medications that they find morally objectionable.

    The battle for a conscience clause inevitably returns to the First Amendment. “”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”” Karen Brauer and other proponents of the conscience clause claim that required distribution of any and all morally objectionable medication violates this amendment. By mandating that pharmacists fill all doctor’s prescriptions, the medical community is indiscriminately forcing pharmacists to do their job, the most important word being indiscriminately.

    While I hesitate to use the phrase “”hide behind,”” Brauer and other Pharmacists for Life are employing an argument that dangerously oversimplifies the protection of the First Amendment. “”Respecting an establishment of religion,”” does not guarantee legislative policies that adhere without conflicts to specific religious beliefs. More accurately, changing a law to accommodate religious objections is exactly that, respecting an establishment of religion.

    Founded on a skewed interpretation of the First Amendment, the conscience clause sets a catastrophic precedent for integrating personal beliefs and legal protections in the medical industry. The concept of pharmacist deniability has gathered much support in the last decade due to the controversial nature of contraceptive and morning-after pills. The power of the religious right, or moral conservatives, has set the focus on these specific instances of so-called discrimination. These narrow interests, who would grant a sweeping authority to pharmacists, fail to analyze the legislative effect of such a clause.

    Denial of medication based on personal morality cannot be judged objectively. There is no way to “”prove”” that an action violates one’s morals other than saying so. In this fashion, the conscience clause could extend to an individual’s questionable, but still morally poignant objection. If pharmacists can deny contraceptives, who is to say that a pharmacist has to dispense arthritis or diabetes medication. Integrating individual conscience with authoritative legislation removes vital patient protections and can begin to undermine public confidence in medical institutions.

    In any medical procedure or process, the patient must be given an unequivocal priority. Using a wealth of professional knowledge and experience, medical doctors diagnose illnesses and medical conditions, and subsequently prescribe appropriate medication to patients. In administering care, medical doctors place the health and needs of the patient above personal opinions or objections. The conscience clause would make pharmacists the primary actor and determinant of medical care. The inherent harm is one’s personal morality dominating another’s objective, medical assessment.

    The conscience clause grants a de facto privilege of professional oversight, grossly undeserved in theory and qualification. According to the Code of Ethics for Pharmacists, “”A pharmacist (must respect) the values and abilities of colleagues and other health professionals.””

    Employing moral relativism in a medical process initiated by a doctor, who followed medical guidelines, is a dangerous game of second-guessing. Besides contempt for certain medical processes, a morally-righteous pharmacist is akin to a meter maid ripping up a policeman’s traffic ticket. Yes, pharmacists are medical professionals, but their knowledge of an individual’s specific medical conditions falls far short of the doctor who actually prescribed the medication.

    A question posed by many critics, both proponents and opponents, concerns the net effect of a pharmacist’s refusal. Can the medication be attained elsewhere? What are the ultimate burdens posed, both on patient and pharmacist? While a pharmacist may have to dispense medication found objectionable, the supposed harm is intangible and endured by the individual.

    Allowing a pharmacist to deny medication, however, affords an emotional comfort but imposes a tangible, potentially damaging effect on the patient. It is not the place of a pharmacist to judge how reasonable of a burden is dispensed, but to provide medication according to legitimate, medical prescription. A Constitutional oddity, the First Amendment protects citizens from coercion, both public and private. However, granting “”moral freedom”” to a few only ensures the moral coercion of the many.

    -ÿDaniel Sotelo is political science junior. He can be reached at

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