Can We Refuse The Parts Of Our Jobs We Don’t Like?

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.

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7 responses »

  1. Physicians/OBGYN’s have the right to refuse giving an abortion, why shouldn’t a Pharmacist have the right to not dispense the morning after pill if they so choose?

    And, yes, the AIDS comment is inaccurate. Plenty of people get AIDS, both straight and gay and those who have never even had sex but are born with it passed on from their mothers. And I’d have to say that delivering a Playboy has a bit different result than dispensing the morning after pill.

    Just as a patient has the right to find another OBGYN if they are seeking an abortion and their doctor will not perform this, they have the right to go to a different pharmacy if the pharmacist refuses to dispense this pill.

    Here’s an interesting article however, related to the controversy.

  2. I’d just like to clarify that I do not believe that only homosexuals get AIDS (as clearly this is not true). Rather, the point I was trying to make was that someone could object to dispensing drugs to homosexuals because they feel homosexuality is immoral under the same reasoning that they object to dispensing the morning-after pill because they believe abortion is immoral.

    re: ClevelandMom

    “I’d have to say that delivering a Playboy has a bit different result than dispensing the morning after pill.”

    Both situations (pharmacists refusing to dispense plan-B and postal carriers delivering magazines) involve one person (an employee) refusing to carry out a responsiblity 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 pronography 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 belives 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?

  3. Wow, great post. I feel dumb like I stepped in it.

    I’d like to clarify what I said earlier. When I said that someone could refuse to do some part of their job that they don’t like; I didn’t mean that they could arbitrarily, will-nilly make this decision. Well, they can–I can’t stop them–but I hope that people use _more_ not less common sense.

    As for birth control pills. They were not invented yesterday. A big part of a pharmacist’s job is going to be to give them out. Also, given out are Prozac (you don’t look depressed), viagra (if God will’s it limp who are you to question that, besides your wife is too old to get pregnant so their’s no point in sex), and more.

    I agree pharmacists should protect their patients from drug interactions that the doctor may not have known about because people have more than one doctor.

    I think if a pharmacist has moral problems with their job people should be sensitive to that and they should allow them to do a part of the job that’s more in line with their personal beliefs like restocking the pens in aisle 3.

    Also, I could see a barista not serving coffee to people he didn’t like. To me, this is different than the original article because the person is an _office_ assistant not a barista. If they were a barista, then they should get coffee for their boss. But I don’t think making the perfect expresso is on the list of tasks an office assistant should do. If it was then by all means, pull that expresso. Just make sure you make a cute little shamrock in it with the cream.

  4. Thanks for the information on pharmacists. It’s hard to watch people not doing their jobs.

    We recently wrote an article on pharmacists at Brain Blogger. Though pharmacists don’t have official “prescribing power”, most medical and surgical teams have a pharmacist on hand. Does their position in the medical food chain give them a power equivalent to that?

    We would like to read your comments on our article. Thank you.


  5. I think the bigger question is why do people decide to pursue careers that could lead them to potential moral dilemmas. I recently sat next to a contract lobbyist on a flight to Austin. Loves his job but, as we talked, I learned that he lobbied for tobacco, the gaming industry, and other things that I’m not crazy about. It’s cool for him, but I knew immediately that working as a contract lobbyist (or in politics in general) wasn’t something I’d be interested in. If delivering magazines is part of the job and you know that going in, I don’t think it’s up to you to censor someone else’s mail.

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