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Bold Prescriptions

Russ Baker

April 01, 2005

Most of us have an ethical and/or religious framework which influences our beliefs about morally complex issues like the right to die or abortion. But progressives as a rule don't shout these beliefs from the rooftops. Traditionally these decisions have been seen as intensely personal. But religious extremists have changed all that, and journalist Russ Baker says it's time for progressives to act publiclyand not leave it to religious extremists to set the agenda.

Russ Baker is a regular contributor to

Have you ever seen tables turn so fast? The same people who for so many years have decried a decline in personal freedom are rapidly becoming domestic interventionists of the first order. 

The religious far right and its allies are interfering with the delivery of products and services and the most intimate compacts between spouses. You know about Terri Schiavo. But are you aware of a growing trend in which service professionals put their religious beliefs ahead of their most basic obligations to the public? You don’t have to be a fanatic about civil liberties to feel discomfited about this latest assault on simple human decencies.

Monday’s Washington Post reported on the increasing numbers of pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control and morning-after pills, saying that doing so would violate personal tenets.

Like the Terri Schiavo case, where ardent defenders of the sanctity of traditional marriage were willing to poke every branch of government into the private business of husband and wife, the harmful activism of right-wing pharmacists affords reasonable-minded, middle-of-the-road or progressive folks a fine opportunity to seize the moral high ground, and begin moving the national conversation away from cynical, demagogic politicians and the mobs they foment.

Before batting around tactical approaches to getting the public the truth about these growing transgressions against liberty, let’s look a little more carefully at the problem.

A pharmacist’s central function is to act as an agent of the health care system, a distribution point between a doctor and a patient. Pharmacists cannot prescribe medicines, they can only deliver them. As such, they obviously  shouldn’t be making decisions on what medicines members of the public can and cannot access just as supermarket employees who are vegetarians may not refuse to ring up meat products.  (If some religious pharmacists cannot reconcile dispensing certain meds with their consciences, they have the honorable alternative of taking up another line of work.)

Defenders of this new vigilantism, including a group called “Pharmacists for Life,” claim that patients can always get their needs filled by another pharmacist. But that isn’t always that easy sometimes, there is no other pharmacist around (especially in rural areas), and sometimes, the “Life” pharmacists even hold the phoned-in prescriptions hostage rather than release them to someone else who will honor them.

The Post chronicles cases where it took patients so long to find a pharmacist who would honor the prescription, that the window for, say, preventing a pregnancy, had already passed. One wonders what kind of responsibility those “Life” pharmacists would be willing to assume for the well-being of the child born of an unintended pregnancy. Or how they feel about their probable role in actually increasing the number of abortion procedures. Or how they understood the role of the pharmacist when they joined the profession.

This and the Schiavo case are but a few examples of a rising tide of societal or individual professional decisions made “for” others which includes teachers not wanting to teach evolution or parents not wanting others’ kids to get an unambiguous understanding of a universally accepted scientific concept. But it really hits home when life and death are concerned. It probably won’t be long before we hear about police officers, emergency medical technicians, and others starting to ignore the rules and making their own personal, “moral” judgments. Then we’ll really see the whole issue of rightsand who should exercise them explode.

Now would be a fine time to start discussing this, and not leave it to religious extremists to set the agenda. When Congress got steamrolled to vote for federal intervention in the Schiavo matter, many of those supporting the bill seemed conflicted, and later confessed to having serious doubts about what they were doing. Surely, they too would have appreciated a little “moral” guidance. 

By all indications, the far right had the entire Schiavo thing stage-managed down to the smallest detail, with broad cooperation between institutions, talking points agreed upon, and everyone working in overdrive on overtime. It would help a great deal if the forces of reason brought a similar energy to preparing for the controversies of the future. 

How can rational people start dominating the debate? By preparing to publicly articulate and defend a set of basic principles on life, death, medical care, etc.on all the key moral issues. Some pro-choice advocates are already working to frame the abortion issue as part of a broader effort to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and to shift the onus onto those who oppose abortion under any circumstances, by asking them to come up with workable alternativesemphasis on workable .

Put in a snappier fashion, instead of concentrating on the unborn or the essentially dead, how about these right-wing moral authorities show some attention to the living? How can you support meddling in unrelated strangers’ affairs but oppose broad, helpful intervention on issues that affect everyone like health insurance for kids and the poor?

We’ll know we’re on the right track when zinger TV ads air that express our views. Simple ads stressing simply how the new movements unleashed by the Schiavo affair and "Pharmacists for Life" are attacking relationships most Americans believe to be intensely personalthus threatening the very concept of  “Husband & Wife” and “Patient & Doctor”could be very effective.  Evoking emotion is certainly appropriatefor example, driving home the devastation a woman feels when she gets a lecture from her pharmacist and is left to wander the streets in search of a pharmacy that will honor her prescription.

There’s nothing wrong with going a little harder, too. Since, it turns out, that both Tom DeLay and Robert Schindler, Terri Schiavo’s father, approved of ‘unplugging’ their parents when doctors said there was no hope, it’s perfectly appropriate to raise this. Cyncism and hypocrisy are incredibly potent villains. Both Tom DeLay and Robert Schindler took doctors’ advice and allowed vegetative-state relatives to die with peace and dignity. Why won’t they allow Terri Schiavo and her husband the same right?

The purpose of such ads will be not just to win a narrowly focused debate on this or that issue, but also to discredit the entire right-wing apparatus of distortion and disinformation, and refocus debate on real life and death concerns.

Social issues aren’t just for mobilizing fanatics anymore. They’re for recapturing the moral high ground and bringing it back where it belongs: with the sane, the reasonable, the decent and the fair.



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