A Pharmacy's Right To Choose

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by Scott M. Rosen by Scott M. Rosen

Perhaps there was once a time in this country when matters of personal conflict were not transformed into microcosms of larger social and political issues. Alas, if those days ever existed, they have long since been forgotten. In today's America, any controversy which the media believes will appeal to their audience becomes the center piece of national debate.

This is true regarding a number of recent cases that involve pharmacists who were unwilling to provide contraceptives to women who sought to purchase them (specifically "morning after" pills). While the details vary from case to case, the essential story line consists of a woman seeking to purchase the aforementioned product, being turned down by a clerk who cites his religious and moral objections and then becoming distraught and seeking support from some authority figure.

Not surprisingly, when one of these stories hits the public debate, talking head, and talk radio circuits, the usual battle lines are drawn. Angry feminists and like-minded folks decry the pharmacist for infringing on the woman's "right to control her own body." More conservative forces, on the other hand, lean towards the position that pharmacists should have the right to object to selling products to their customers which they find morally untenable.

Unfortunately, because every issue these days enters into realm of politics, what should be private disputes have been elevated into public policy debates. What is missing from this national discussion, however, is a respect for private property rights.

It would probably be fair to assume that there are three general relationships a pharmacist may have to his pharmacy. Most likely, he would be the owner of the pharmacy, an employee for a locally owned pharmacy, or the employee of a pharmacy which is part of a larger (regional or national) retail chain.

If this is his pharmacy, it is truly distressing that there is any debate over the issue. He has put up (or borrowed) the capital to create his business. He is the one who has taken the risk to allow consumers to enjoy the benefits of his enterprise, and apparently, it is this private pharmacist who has forgone his leisure time (for his own profit of course) in order to staff the pharmacy.

Why on earth shouldn't he be permitted to operate the business as he sees fit? Should his discriminatory [not used as a pejorative] policy earn the ire of his consumers, his profitability would be impaired. However, it would then be his choice as to whether he would relent in order to protect his financial interests or forgo financial gain in order to protect his values.

If the pharmacist is the employee of a locally or corporately owned pharmacy, the issue becomes a bit more complex, but the same principles apply. In this case, the pharmacist is no longer tending to his own private property, and it is possible that he has violated the rights of someone, but this person is not the woman seeking contraceptive pills.

As an employee of a private property owner (or the management which represents the company's shareholders/owners), the pharmacist has entered into a contract to perform certain duties in return for employment and compensation. Should his objection to the woman's request violate the store or the company's policy, he would be in breach of his contract and possibly subject to certain disciplinary actions, including termination.

Regardless of the action taken against the pharmacist, the decision as to what (if any) discipline should be invoked rests once again with the private property owners (or representatives thereof). It is up to the owner to decide what he values more. If the pharmacist isn't a particularly stellar employee and the entire situation has proved to be nothing more than a hassle, one would assume the owner would simply let him go. However, suppose the pharmacist is well liked and many residents opt to use the pharmacy in question only because they enjoy his skill, efficiency, or pleasant conversation. In this instance, it may be in the owner's best interest to keep him on.

If the pharmacist works for a larger corporation, the situation may be a bit different. Large corporations are very careful to avoid bad press and marring their brand name. Faced with enough scrutiny, they may decide just to terminate the pharmacist and pledge that protecting their customers from humiliation is a top priority. Conversely, they may be frightened of any backlash from pro-life advocates and instead vow to protect their employees' right to maintain their value systems. They may even opt for a creative solution such as guaranteeing that there will always be a "back up" pharmacist who can fill prescriptions if the other pharmacist is unable or unwilling to do so.

Numerous considerations may be given to each situation by the store's owner or corporate management. In fact, not all of the cases were identical. In one, the pharmacist simply refused to provide the product while in another the pharmacist rebuked the woman seeking a "morning after" pill for her reckless conduct. The owner, who must bear the costs of how he handles the situation, however, is the only person who can properly weigh what the appropriate response is.

No doubt, though, no matter what action (or lack of action) is taken, somebody will bemoan that one of the party's "rights" have been violated. Those who believe the pharmacist made the right call (either because they agree with him or simply believe that employees shouldn't be forced to violate their consciences) would probably be enraged if the pharmacist was terminated because of his decision.

These folks certainly have the right to disagree with the decision, but they would be incorrect to assert that any of his rights have been violated. Unless his contract specifically stipulates that he does not have to fill prescriptions that he is morally opposed to, his employer is within his right to terminate the pharmacist. After all, just as the pharmacist could quit if he did not feel like his company was benefiting him, the pharmacy can sever its ties with him if they do not feel like he is properly representing their interests.

On the other side, "reproductive rights" advocates have claimed that pharmacists like this are infringing on a woman's right to control her body. Of course, the pharmacist is doing no such thing. He has not taken anything from her or restrained her from finding a merchant who will provide her with the product which she desires. All he has done is refrained from using his labor and his property to complete her requested transaction.

Such a complaint stems from the ridiculous notion that women have an absolute right to birth control. Women (like men) certainly have a right to engage in transactions in the market in which both parties agree to the terms of the trade. It does not matter whether the product is a vegetable or a contraceptive. However, if they cannot come to a mutual agreement with a merchant either because the consumer does not have enough money or the seller is unwilling to provide the good, then no rights have been violated. The consumer will just have to forgo the good or find a party that is willing to make a deal on different terms.

Contraception advocates constantly complain that certain insurance plans won't subsidize the cost of birth control, but insurance companies must take into account the good of all of their customers. If birth control pills will make the company's service more costly, it may be in the firm's best interest not provide this benefit. After all, customers such as religious women, children, older women, and all men will not utilize this product.

Of course, with both the pharmacy and insurance situations, customers have the right to take their business elsewhere. Businesses may suffer significant losses by excluding or offending certain constituencies, but that is there prerogative. Chances are, in today's decadent society, somebody (including Internet business) will provide any feasible service to any customer who is willing to pay.

There is no right to contraception, and there is no right to a job, but there is a right to own and control one's own property. Few people would appreciate others informing them as to how they can use and operate their own businesses, homes, and possessions. Why do these same people feel the need to involve themselves with how anyone else uses his or her own property?

Scott Rosen [send him mail] is a research analyst for a DC area trade association. He is a recent graduate of the Kogod School of Business at American University with a degree in business and economics.

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