June 20, 2006

Personal Belief and Professional Obligation

Plan B

According to an editorial in The Washington Post, the House of Representatives inserted a provision into the most recent defense authorization bill designed to ensure that evangelical Christian military chaplains are permitted to pray in Jesus’ name during public ceremonies. Cooler heads in the Senate are debating their own version of the bill - minus this provision - but given the pressure applied by evangelical groups to get it included in the House edition, there is every chance that this will become the latest shred of “evidence” in the supposed “War on Christianity.”

Military policy through the years has wisely kept public and mandatory ceremonies non-denominational, recognizing that not only are there significant numbers of non-Christians in our armed forces, but that there are Christians who are embarrassed by the proselytizing of their, at times, over-enthusiastic brethren. Those entering the military to serve as chaplains are, and have been, fully aware that they will be ministering to a diverse flock, but the public justification for the House provision is that evangelicals who cannot preach in the name of Jesus Christ are restricted in their faith, and that that’s religious discrimination.

If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because it is an exact parallel to what is currently taking place with regard to some pharmacists and the so-called Plan B emergency contraceptive. Plan B is effective in preventing pregnancy if taken within 72 hours of unprotected sex, but a recent survey indicates that a strong majority of pharmacists believe they should have the authority to refuse to fill a legal, doctor-authorized, time-sensitive prescription if their “beliefs” would be in conflict with providing the drug.

Leaving for a moment, the fact that it would seem as if those opposed to abortion – as these pharmacists almost universally are - would logically want to provide tools to women anxious to avoid unwanted pregnancies, this is a truly frightening statistic. In a nutshell, it means that someone standing behind the counter of your local Target can not only trample all over your rights as a patient, but can do so in a way that negates treatment. (See this recent personal account, by a 42-year-old working mother of two, on the consequences of making emergency contraception unavailable.)

The idea that someone’s religious beliefs can trump my right to find solace in my own organized faith (if I have one) or my access to legal medical care is, in a word, ludicrous.

The role of a pharmacist is to fill legal prescriptions accurately, ensure that harmful drug interactions do not take place, and answer questions about things like side effects and the consequences of missed doses. This is clear from the moment one enters pharmacology school - or at least it should be – and it should be even more clear that the job of pharmacist does not include a requirement that one’s customers be judged morally. If it is otherwise, then pharmacist Tom Cruise could refuse prescription medication to women suffering post-partum depression – which can lead to infanticide in the worst cases – because of his Scientologist beliefs.

Likewise, military chaplains are present to provide religious support to members or the armed services who want it, no matter what denomination those service people are. The last thing a soldier seeking strength to go into battle or minister to fallen comrades needs is someone in a position of authority calling into question his belief system. The U.S. armed forces, like public schools, courts and government institutions as a whole, simply should not be used for proselytizing, period.

Questions are now being asked about the rights of the pharmacist versus the rights of the patient, as well as the rights of the chaplain versus the rights of the service person of another denomination, and where the boundaries of these respective rights meet. But this supposes that the question even needs to be asked, and if this tactic of “selective professional obligation on moral grounds” is given credence, it’s not hard to imagine a Muslim applying for a position in a slaughterhouse that kills pigs, and then claiming that his religious freedom is being violated because he is expected to touch swine.

Simply put, if you can’t do the job, don’t apply for it, and don’t pursue it as a profession. "Pharmacist's rights" and "chaplain's rights" clearly represent the cusp of a very slippery slope, and are yet more reason that religion, faith, spirituality or whatever one decides to call it, should remain a personal matter rather than a public one.

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