The Conscience Clause

We liberals have a lot on our consciences. Who taught the right wing how to use religion for social causes during the Martin Luther King era? Who showed them that discrimination on the basis of race or sex was not something most Americans see as part of the generous bounty of this country? It was us, and now we reap the harvest of all these past successes: The Christian right has stolen our toolkit and is busily using it to demolish the human rights we so laboriously built. They tell us that religious people are the real victims of discrimination and they tell us that what really oppresses them is…human rights. Who would have thought.

The human rights the Christian right deplores most are women's reproductive rights. These rights oppress pro-life pharmacists all across the country, pharmacists who have decided to believe that the contraceptive pill, including its stronger “Morning After” or Plan B form, amounts to the killing of unborn babies. These pharmacists have no desire to fill such prescriptions that would do that, even if the prescription is for the treatment of some malady quite unrelated to birth control.

Lucky for them, someone is looking out for their rights: Legislators in several states have proposed bills that would protect the rights of a pro-life pharmacist -- even one wishing to deny a customer her emergency contraceptive pills late at night in some solitary rural pharmacy when there are no other routes to obtain them -- by instituting lefty-sounding “Health Care Workers' Rights” or “Pharmacist Conscience Clauses.” What these laws would protect is not just the workers' tender consciences but also their right to not work and to not get disciplined for such refusals. We should all be so lucky.

Take the bill proposed for the protection of pro-life pharmacists in the state of Missouri. Among other goodies, it promises that pharmacists will be protected against discrimination: “Employers cannot refuse to hire, discriminate against, segregate, or terminate a pharmaceutical professional because of their opposition to any service involving a particular drug or device that they have a good faith belief is used for abortions.”

See what I mean about the right having stolen our toolkit? They have taken “discrimination,” and they are using it all wrong. If I refuse to hire a pharmacist just because that person is black or female or a Unitarian, I am discriminating in the legal sense because all these characteristics are irrelevant from the point of view of what pharmacists are expected to do. What is not irrelevant is whether the pharmacist will actually do the job I'm trying to fill, and yet this is exactly what the right-wing Christians are arguing. “Discrimination” has had the usual fate of terms stolen by the right wing: Its meaning has been turned on its head.

The Missouri bill doesn't just privilege the consciences of pharmacists over the still legally protected reproductive rights of women. Although it is careful to limit the conscience clause to qualms about abortion, the problem it reflects is more general: The ethical values of a worker are given priority, even when these values interfere with the perfectly legal job the worker has been hired for and even when the refusal to dispense a medication may result in serious harm to the patients the pharmacy is paid to serve. Christian Scientists don't believe in conventional medical care. Could a Christian Scientist work as a pharmacist somewhere in this country, spending day after day refusing to dispense anything at all, and yet cashing in a salary every month? It is beginning to look like a real possibility.

In the meantime, I am going to apply for a job behind the deli counter at my local supermarket. The job fits me like a glove because I'm a fanatic Buddhist vegetarian and I will enjoy educating and enlightening the customers. I will also refuse to fill any orders for ham sandwiches or chicken breasts or meatball heroes, because eating meat is wrong and sinful, and I will spend a lot of time filing my nails while the other workers take over. I expect not to be fired, because it would be discrimination against my religious and ethical principles.

Sadly, such a scenario will not come about because it is not about regulating women's fertility. That is, after all, the real reason for the conscience clauses: The Uterus Wars. If you wish to convince me otherwise show me the case where a pharmacist's conscience left a customer's Viagra prescription unfilled or the packet of condoms on the counter. Not gonna happen.

Jaana Goodrich is a recovering economist and the sole proprietor of the political blog Echidne of the Snakes.