A Prescription for Intrusive Government

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Across
the nation, patients and pharmacists are increasingly butting heads
over the filling of prescriptions for contraceptives and "morning
after" pills. Some pharmacists object to filling such prescriptions
on religious, moral, or ethical grounds. State governments have
now entered the fray, producing legislation aimed at protecting
either the pharmacist's right of refusal or the patient's "right"
to have a prescription filled. In a truly free society, such legislation
would be unwarranted; women would be free to choose to use contraceptives
and pharmacists would be free to dispense the medications they choose.

Four
states — Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, and South Dakota — currently
have "conscience clauses" that protect the rights of pharmacists
to refuse to fill prescriptions on moral or religious grounds. At
least eight other states are considering similar legislation. Five
states, however, have legislation pending that would make it illegal
for pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for ethical reasons,
and two such bills — S. 809 and H.R. 1652 — are pending in Congress.

California
currently has two similar anti-refusal bills pending, SB 644 and
AB 121. SB 644 would allow pharmacists to refuse to dispense medication
for moral or religious reasons only if they had previously presented
their employers with written notification of their decision and
the employer could "provide a reasonable accommodation of the
pharmacist's objection" by ensuring that the patient can get
the prescription from another pharmacist or pharmacy without too
much trouble. Heaven forbid we inconvenience the patient to uphold
the pharmacist's right to freely express his religion or conscience!
The provision that pharmacists may invoke their right of refusal
only if they (or their employers) can make alternative arrangements
for the patient comes as little consolation to conscientious objectors.
For pharmacists who consider the morning-after pill, for example,
to be a form of abortion and do not wish to take part in the ending
of an innocent life, this is akin to forcing them to say, "I'm
not going to help you kill your baby, but I can give you the name
of a guy down the street who will."

The
second bill, AB 121, originally would have made it illegal for pharmacists
to refuse to fill prescriptions for any reasons, though thankfully
it was amended to at least allow pharmacists the modicum of rights
contained in SB 644. AB 121 would additionally make it illegal to
fire, or refuse to hire, a pharmacist based on his or her beliefs
with regard to dispensing contraceptives. The bill would thus trample
not only on the right of pharmacists to decide what medications
to dispense (and what not to) but also on the right of employers
to set their own business practices and decide what to sell or not
sell.

One
of the problems (among many) of occupational licensing is that it
invites this politicization of personal beliefs and decisions. While
the growth of stores like Wal-Mart has offered people increasing
levels of convenience over the years, let us not forget that this
added convenience is merely a byproduct and benefit of the free
market, not a right.

Consumers
do not have an inherent right to any particular product at any particular
store. Should a store be forced to sell books or music or other
products that the proprietor deems "objectionable" if
a significant interest group can amass the political support to
oppose his decision? Imagine the uproar if all large retail stores
were forced by governmental action to sell guns. After all, we do
have the right to bear arms. Using the logic of the anti-refusal
crowd, stores (and their employees) who refuse to sell guns should
be castigated for "discriminating against gun owners."
Of course, guns are currently out of vogue on the political scene
and contraceptives are not.

It
is as convenient as ever for women to obtain contraceptives. Telephone
and Internet mail orders, 24-hour pharmacies, and a rapidly expanding
network of superstores containing pharmacies have all expanded consumers'
options for birth control. In case this is not enough, many doctors
write "just in case" prescriptions for the morning-after
pill, giving patients ample time to obtain the pills — or locate
a pharmacy/pharmacist that will fill the prescription for them in
the future.

There
is obviously a large market for contraceptives. The aforementioned
objections to infringements on the rights of pharmacists and employers
notwithstanding, the free market provides strong incentives (i.e.,
the profit motive) for businesses to satisfy consumers' demands.
Thus, pharmacies tend to adopt policies to ensure that patients'
prescriptions are filled, such as making available another pharmacist
who does not object to filling the prescriptions or providing referrals
to nearby pharmacies. Those that choose not to, however, should
not be forced to do so.

"Pro
choice" is a two-way street. Women are free to choose to use
birth control and pharmacists (or doctors, for that matter) are
free to choose whether or not to supply the medication. Likewise,
businesses are free to set their own policies and business practices.
Employers should be free to choose to sell or not sell products
and to employ people who will adhere to their policies. Consumers
and pharmacists who disagree with these policies are free to boycott
or otherwise peacefully protest the employer's decisions. In a free
society, all parties would be allowed to exercise their beliefs.
The wonder of the free market is that it allows them to do so while
also ensuring that consumers' demands will be satisfied — without
government interference.

The
Founding Fathers were rightly concerned about of the tyranny of
the majority. Let us not discard the rights to freely pursue one's
livelihood on his or her own terms and act in accordance with one's
moral or religious beliefs because a temporary majority finds these
rights inconvenient.

July
13, 2005

Adam
B. Summers [send him mail]
is a policy analyst at the Reason Foundation. He holds a Master’s
degree in economics from George Mason University and Bachelor’s
degrees in economics and political science from the University of
California, Los Angeles. Mr. Summers also contributes to The
Libertarian Perspective, a weekly column of libertarian, free-market
thought distributed to California newspapers.

Adam
B. Summers Archives

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