Whose Conscience Counts?
There have been several cases reported recently of pharmacists refusing to dispense birth control or emergency contraceptive pills on the basis of their religious beliefs. Their argument is that their religious beliefs lead them to understand emergency contraceptive as murder and birth control as promoting pre-marital sex, and so their conscience cannot permit them to dispense this medication.
Similarly, not too long ago in England, there was a registrar who refused to perform gay marriages because of her Christian beliefs in homosexuality and gay marriage as sinful. Her employer threatened to fire her, she sued for discrimination, and won. A speaker for the Christian Institute, who funded the registrar’s case, said “This important ruling confirms that gay rights should not be treated as trumping religious rights.”
Cases like these are currently being discussed by some as “conscientious objection,” clearly hoping to gain the sympathy for the objectors that pacifists who refused to fight in drafted war efforts deserve. I disagree with the comparison, the situations are not at all comparable. No one has forced anyone to be a pharmacist or a registrar. If you don’t like the job, don’t do it. You do not have the right to choose which clients you will and will not serve. Objectors claim that they aren’t denying the service, just refusing to provide it themselves – the homos can get their paperwork filed by someone else, the women can get their birth control or emergency contraception dispensed by another pharmacist. I don’t think that’s good enough.
Suppose a restaurant server refused to serve people of a certain race or ethnicity, claiming that it’s against their beliefs to engage in any kind of relations with these people. “What’s the big deal? There are other servers here,” they could say, “let someone else serve them.” This a) throws off everyone else’s routine, forcing a server from one section to wait a lone table in another section, forcing the manager to schedule that worker for times when they won’t be alone and causing any number of other problems in the day-to-day operations of the business and b) shows the client that the business is ok with racial bigotry. The simpler solution would be to not employ the bigot. If you cannot do a task associated with a particular job, then you need to consider that job as not suited for you.
Objectors say that they are making these “conscientious” objections based on their own beliefs of what is moral and right for them to do – that is, based on their own understandings how it is appropriate for them to act. They say that they are not forcing their religions on others, only asking for the right to observe it themselves. If this were true, they would find jobs whose duties imposed no moral hardship on them. Instead, what they are doing is demanding to do these jobs they are not willing to do to completion, and demanding that their moral decisions take precendence over those of the clients. They are denying women the right to make decisions about their own reproductive lives, they are denying gay people the right to live as full citizens under the law. They are imposing their consciences on others.
There are a lot of jobs I am not suited for. I could never work in a slaughterhouse because I am a complete hypocrite about meat. Should I be allowed to get a job at a slaughterhouse and then claim that my conscience forbids me from participating in the killing of animals, so someone else needs to do it? Of course not! If the company needed to find someone else to do my job, then I should be relieved not only of that duty, but of duty entirely. If your job is to dispense medication prescribed by a doctor, or to administer a federal program, or to teach science, it is none of your business what the drug is, who wants to get married, or whether or not you believe in education. If those things are important to you, then find a way you can feel good about your work without imposing your religious beliefs on others. Your conscience has no right over mine.
I admit, a criticism of my argument is that many of these people started the job when it was not morally troubling to them (before gay marriage was legalized, before easy access to birth control) and things have since changed. I think my argument still stands, though, as the pharmacist is not the one prescribing the drugs, just following the orders of the doctor. The registrar is not the one legalizing gay marriage, just administering paperwork. The client’s care was not, and has never been, determined by these workers but by someone above them, whose orders it is the objector’s job to follow.