Does Business Have a Conscience?

Back in July, I wrote about the ongoing controversy surrounding pharmacists’ right to refuse to dispense emergency contraception, such as Plan-B, because they felt it violated their religious beliefs. As I stated then, for me

“the real heart of this issue is can an employee refuse to carry out specific aspects of their job that they do not like?…While I don’t think anyone on either side of this issue is advocating that people perform their jobs like robots with no room for compassion or common sense, we have to weigh the public responsibility of the pharmacy position (to dispense medications as requested) against individual freedom (to exercise free will).”

I feel that this is a “slippery slope” argument. Who gets to decide what is acceptable and what is not? As I explained to one commentor, who felt that my hypothetical example of a mailman refusing to deliver pornography on the grounds that s/he morally opposes it was not on par with pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions they believe will cause an abortion:

“Both situations (pharmacists refusing to dispense plan-B and postal carriers delivering magazines) involve one person (an employee) refusing to carry out a responsibility that directly impacts another person’s individual freedom over their own body (to prevent pregnancy or to masturbate).

Are you suggesting that moral objections are only legitimate in certain situations? That the rights of someone who finds pornography sinful should be less protected than someone who believes abortion is sinful? Who gets to decide what situations we can object to (the very question the WA State court is trying to decide right now)? What if the postal carrier believes viewing pornography is just as objectionable as abortion? Would that make it ok for them to not deliver pornography if that were part of their job?”

A surprising number of comments wholeheartedly felt it was acceptable to refuse the parts of their jobs that they disliked (much to my surprise). And recent developments have shown that the Bush Administration feels the same. The New York Times reports

“The Bush administration, as expected, announced new protections on Thursday for health care providers who oppose abortion and other medical procedures on religious or moral grounds.

“Doctors and other health care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience,” Michael O. Leavitt, the secretary of Health and Human Services, said in a statement on his department’s Web site….

The measures announced on Thursday, sometimes described collectively as the “conscience rule,” were issued just in time to take effect before the start of the new administration.”

I still need to read the rule in its entirety, but I’m disturbed by this statement in the Times piece:

“The rule prohibits recipients of federal money from discriminating against doctors, nurses and health care aides who refuse to take part in procedures because of their convictions, and it bars hospitals, clinics, doctors’ office and pharmacies from forcing their employees to assist in programs and activities financed by the department.”

What exactly constitutes a “forced assist?” Could I sue my employer for making me come in on a Sunday when I don’t feel like it? Where does it end?
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4 responses »

  1. Generally I am all for lack of discrimination, especially if it’s against employees who are following their convictions, but I can’t help but wonder if the Bush administration would be so gung-ho about employees’ right to refuse if the issue were one that was less in line with its policies. Would Bush fire an FBI guy who refused to put a warrantless wiretap in place? I think he would.

  2. I am a school teacher and there are aspects of my job that I don’t like doing. For instance, I teach special education and we are required to teach students the same standards that other students in the country are doing. My issue with that is they are also tested the same as other students in the country and expected to perform at the same level as other students in the country.

    I am forced to teach students how to find the volume of a cone, yet they don’t know how to solve 42/6.

    Now there are ways to teach the basic stuff while at the same time exposing students to the standards that they need to know.

    If a student is performing at a 2nd grade level and is in the 7th grade, shouldn’t they be tested where they are performing?

    If I don’t do this, I am in direct violation of the Law (No Child Left Behind, 2001) and could lose my job.

  3. Newb: As a grandparent with a theological background, these kind of restrictions drive me nuts. Admittedly, I haven’t developed an ethical perspective that will meet philosophical standards. I’m just responding to the state of my glands.

    Clearly one of the pieces of your decision-making is spot-on: “who gets to decide what is acceptable and what is not?” That basic question will probably divide any audience in half. And maybe drive us back to the US Constitution–which may be the only arbiter of some truth that has majority acceptance.

    I’d like to hear Arthur Kaplan, the biomedical ethicist at Penn, argue these issues. Might be insightful for all of us.

  4. I was one of those who stated earlier that I thought that one had a duty to refuse to do things that one thought were wrong while on a job. This is due to nursing training that taught me that we are all accountable for our actions. If I felt that giving a drug would kill a patient, I was told to withhold it. I only worked as a nurse for 10 weeks, but this actually came up more than once. If you think that nurses are saving doctors from killing people constantly, you are right. If the nurses just said, “I must do what I am ordered” then there would be way more dead people and way more lawsuits.

    In Buddhism, there’s a notion of Right Livelihood which means that it’s against Buddhist ethics to hold a job that is immoral. I believe that everyone has certain things that they consider to be immoral, and we differ in the details.

    That comes to my second point. Why would someone purposefully take a job that would conflict with their ethics? If you don’t like abortion don’t work at a clinic. If you feel that you get to decide what medications people take then don’t work at a Pharmacy. There are jobs that are wrong for some people. Just don’t work there.

    When I said that someone had the right to not do a part of their job they didn’t like, I meant a small thing. For example, if my boss tells me to fake my data from an experiment, should I fake it? No. If my wife’s boss tells her to help her embezzle money, should she do it? No.

    But if I was opposed to say, animal research, which I am, I’d be crazy to take an animal research job then tell my boss that I can’t do this job.

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