Conscience

Reporters in Capitols throughout the country, we suppose, have watched their legislatures get consciences.  More and more proposals are being made and passed excusing more and more people in occupations of broad public service  from serving that public.

Suppose you were to go into your local pharmacy with a prescription for, say, Lipitor, a popular anti-cholesterol medicine.  Suppose the pharmacist said, “I’m sorry. I have a moral objection to dealing with any medications that regulate cholesterol.”

“But I have a prescription from my doctor,” you say.  “Don’t you have to fill a prescription from a doctor who thinks this medication could reduce a life-threatening condition that I have?”

“No, I don’t, ” the pharmacist replies.  “State law says I do not have to stock any medications if I have a moral objection to them.”

There is no state law yet that allows a pharmacist to refuse to fill your prescription for Lipitor. Yet.  But one has been proposed.  Although the sponsor, Senator David Sater, who ran a pharmacy for 29 years, says it’s nothing more than free enterprise, a look at who has testified for it makes clear what it is.

His bill gives pharmacies the right to stock whatever medications they want to stock.  That means, of course, that they can refuse to stock whatever they don’t want to stock.  And if they have a moral objection to any medication, they can refuse to stock it and therefore don’t have to make any medication available that any doctor in his or her professional opinion believes is essential to the health and life of a patient.   “This is no different from a clothing store,” Sater has told a Senate Committee.  A clothing store, he argues, is under no obligation to stock clothing that is not stylish enough to sell or that the proprietor thinks is objectionable.  The decision of what to stock, he says, should be made on the business level.

Except the bill he proposes does not say “business level.”

Testifying for the bill were representatives of the Missouri Family Network, the Missouri Baptist Convention, Missouri Right to Life, the Missouri Pharmacy Association, and Campaign Life Missouri.  As often happens in the process of law-making, the list of people testifying in favor of a bill indicates what the true target of the legislation is even if the proposal is wrapped in seemingly innocuous wording.

There is nothing new in this.  Organizations of all kinds have written self-serving bills that sound like something a well-meaning favorite old uncle might write.

Today the word “conscience” is the word that is being used to try to impose through state law one moral system upon a general public that has a diversity of consciences on a diversity of subjects.

Imagine a civilization in which all people were free to deny rights and services to others because each wished to exercise his or her conscience.

Laws are created, among other reasons, to set the balance between conscience and organized society.  Reporters get to watch those who write the laws seek that balance, to determine whether in a pluralistic society one faith or moral system should be imposed on all, to determine if service to a free general public outweighs a personal standard that can limit that service.

In reporting these stories, we leave it to the public, to the voters, to the competing interests, to determine if it is really true that your personal space ends at the tip of my nose.  And what to do about it.

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