Thursday, April 16, 2015

Pharmacist in Georgia Refuses to Fill Doctor-Prescribed Medicine to Complete Miscarriage: Why We Need to Keep Thinking about "Religious Freedom" Legislation

Here's a story that illustrates (for me, at least) why I think it's worthwhile to keep ranting about "religious freedom" laws that allow for-profit businesses to refuse to serve or sell goods to others on grounds of conscience: as Amanda Marcotte reports at Slate, a woman in Georgia, Brittany Cartrett, recently posted on Facebook an account of what happened when her doctor prescribed Misoprostol as she was miscarrying at about five weeks of pregnancy. Cartrett indicates that her doctor wanted her to take this pharmaceutical, which can also cause abortion, to complete the miscarriage.

She reports that when she went to a Wal-Mart pharmacy in Milledgeville, Georgia, a pharmacist informed her that she would not fill the prescription, because "I couldn't think of a reason why you would need that prescription." As Marcotte notes, 

Georgia law has broad provisions allowing pharmacists to refuse service based on "conscience."

She also states that the supervisor of the Milledgeville pharmacist has defended her action. As Molly Redden reports for Mother Jones* and Irin Carmon for MSNBC, a Wal-Mart spokesperson, Brian Nick, is stating that the pharmacist in question did not invoke conscience as her reason for refusing to fill the prescription, but claimed that the drug is not FDA-approved for miscarriages, and used her professional judgment to deny Cartrett the medication on that ground.

Redden notes that Cartrett has asked, "If this happened to me, who else has this happened to?" According to Redden, after Cartrett posted her story to Facebook, other women have come forward with similar stories which suggest that they have been denied Misoprostol as a treatment for an incomplete miscarriage because pharmacists have told them the drug is an abortifacient — and they object to providing it on grounds of conscience.

At Jezebel, Anna Merlan casts doubt on Wal-Mart's claim that the Milledgeville pharmacist refused to fill Cartrett's prescription due to her "professional judgment" that Misoprostol shouldn't be used to complete a miscarriage — and not on grounds of conscientious objection. Merlan concludes,

And this incident shows that despite medical wisdom, common sense, professionalism and basic human decency to the contrary, pharmacists in conscience clause states can do pretty much whatever they want and get away with it.

That's the sticking point for me. These laws that permit people in for-profit businesses to opt out of providing professional services and goods to others while claiming religous belief  and conscience as their ground for opting out allow some citizens to set themselves up as moral arbiters and judges of other citizens in a way that radically erodes the common good. In this story, a pharmacist sets herself up as a judge of a doctor prescribing medication to a patient: a pharmacist claims the right to intrude into the doctor-patient relationship by refusing to fill a doctor-ordered prescription.

That ought to be of concern to all of us, I propose. On what ground and by what basis do pharmacists assert such prerogatives in a well-ordered society? And what will be the next medication or item a pharmacist arbitrarily denies to a customer, on the ground that her "professional judgment" forbids her to sell the medication or his conscience will not allow him to fill that prescription or sell that item?

Would the Wal-Mart officials defending these actions want themselves and their families subject to such treatment when they visit their local pharmacies, I wonder? I seriously doubt so.

The people most at risk in a system that gives such astonishing, unmerited autocratic moral privilege to people providing goods and services to others are almost always not Wal-Mart officials. They're "little people," people who often don't have the resources or ability to fight back.

Letting others self-righteously prove their moral superiority on the backs of little people is morally odious. Permitting and encouraging this kind of behavior through RFRA laws and conscience clauses undermines the common good and reinforces social disparities that allow some people — elite people — access to goods and services denied to other people because they lack the cachet, the insider status, the meal tickets and club entrance cards, of their betters.

*The Mother Jones link was working for me when I wrote this posting, but now leads to an "access denied" link. Googling the story will allow you to retrieve the cached copy.

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