Last week I wrote about Tamara Klopfenstein, the assistant who sued her former employers for sexual harassment because they asked her to fetch them coffee, and debated about whether or not we are allowed to refuse to carry out aspects of our jobs we do not like.
After coming across a recent article in the Seattle PI, I realized that this debate is alive and well and playing itself out in the Washington State court system. Pharmacists in both my hometown of Seattle, as well as across the country, are refusing to dispense the highly controversial birth control drug, Plan B.
According to the Washington Post:
The trend has opened a new front in the nation’s battle over reproductive rights, sparking an intense debate over the competing rights of pharmacists to refuse to participate in something they consider repugnant and a woman’s right to get medications her doctor has prescribed. It has also triggered pitched political battles in statehouses across the nation as politicians seek to pass laws either to protect pharmacists from being penalized — or force them to carry out their duties.
Setting aside the issues of abortion and reproductive rights, the real heart of this issue is can an employee refuse to carry out specific aspects of their job that they do not like?
What makes the pharmacists/Plan B debate especially inflammatory is that their refusal to act directly impacts the rights and well-being (so to speak) of others.
“We don’t have a profession of robots. We have a profession of humans. We have to acknowledge that individual pharmacists have individual beliefs,” said Susan C. Winckler, the [American Pharmacists] association’s vice president for policy and communications.
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).
Advocates for pharmacists’ rights argue that if refused their request for Plan B, customers can take their business elsewhere to one of many pharmacies that will fill the prescription. But many women’s rights advocates argue with equal fervor that any pharmacist with an objection to filling prescriptions of any kind can just as easily change professions to one that does not require them to make moral objections.
Where do we draw the line? Can pharmacists refuse to dispense AIDS drugs because they find homosexuality immoral? Can a Postal Carrier refuse to deliver issues of Playboy because they find pornography disgusting? Is it a violation of their civil rights to force them to do so?
Are there situations when the public good trumps private freedom?
The Patriot Act certainly thinks so, and for the time being, so does the Washington State district court.