Forcing Healthcare Professionals to Dispense Emergency Contraception Is Discriminatory

Healthcare professionals with moral objections to EC shouldn’t be required to provide it to patients.

A pharmacists holds prescription medicine
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In our free and diverse nation, we hold a wide variety of religious, ethical, and political views. As a result, we hold a wide range of opinions on controversial subjects like abortion, capital punishment, and assisted suicide. Medical professionals are no different: They are free and diverse people with diverse beliefs. This means that some will be willing to participate in certain activities—preparing a lethal injection for an execution, providing abortion-inducing drugs, or prescribing chemicals to help a cancer patient kill herself—and some will not.

In a free and pluralistic society, the best response to this diversity is the simplest one: live and let live. So long as they are legal, free people should be free to choose whether or not to participate in these procedures. There are many willing providers, and there is no need to force unwilling people to participate.

[Read Gretchen Borchelt: Pharmacists Can't Be Allowed to Deny Women Emergency Contraception]

Those who champion government-enforced orthodoxy—the idea that the government should strip people of their licenses or shut down their businesses for religious objection to performing a particular service—are out of step with our laws, which prohibit such discrimination. Worse, these proponents of government-enforced orthodoxy often make false claims about access problems to justify cleansing professions of people who disagree with them. In the process, our healthcare system is made worse for everyone.

The recent controversy over emergency contraception is a case in point. In 2005, Illinois's then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to coerce unwilling pharmacists to dispense emergency contraception. Some pharmacists refused on religious grounds, citing FDA documents showing that the drugs may stop a fertilized egg from implanting, which the pharmacists viewed as abortion.

Blagojevich justified his mandate on health grounds: These pharmacists were supposedly interfering with access to legal drugs. Accordingly, the pharmacies could be stripped of their licenses and pharmacists should "find another profession" if they would not dispense. Gov. Chris Gregoire in Washington followed suit, threatening to fire the entire board of pharmacy if they even allowed a pharmacist to step aside to let a nearby pharmacy fill the prescription.

[Check out U.S. News Weekly, an insider's guide to politics and policy.]

This take-no-prisoners approach to emergency contracetion—enlisting the coercive power of government to force unwilling people to participate or lose their jobs—makes a mockery of the mantra of "choice." Worse, the claimed health access problems were completely false. In separate court cases, after years of litigation, two different judges found absolutely no evidence of any person in either state being unable to get emergency contraception because of a religious objection. Not one. It turns out there is no shortage of willing sellers, and the drug is widely available over the Internet. Both courts found targeting religious pharmacists to be illegal.

And that is the right answer. We may never reach agreement on controversial issues like abortion. But a fair respect for our diversity of views should mean that we won't force people out of business for holding one belief or another about a legal practice. And kicking people out of professions and closing down pharmacies limits access to healthcare as providers close their doors and/or leave the state for friendlier territory.

Government-enforced orthodoxy is incompatible with our free, pluralistic society and bad for our healthcare system. Live and let live acknowledges and respects our differences, and tells people of all faiths and beliefs that they are welcome in our healthcare professions.