Abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia and the like are among today’s most contentious political issues. Choosing sides often isn’t easy.
For instance, no one should feel comfortable about the state rebuffing a woman’s desire for an abortion. But the procedure destroys a human life.
What should be a simple decision is allowing individuals to say no, irrespective of the government’s stance. If abortion is legal, no doctor should have to perform it. If assisted suicide is permissible, no medical professional should have to participate.
If gay relationships are left untouched by the authorities, no apartment owner should have to rent to a same-sex couple. If contraceptives are available like other medicines, no doctor should have to write a prescription nor any pharmacist have to fill one.
In short, if "choice" is good, it should be protected for everyone. Unfortunately, however, many liberal interest groups seem to believe that choice means allowing them to choose for everyone else.
The latest cause celebre involves pharmacists who won’t fill prescriptions for birth control or the "morning after" pill. Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich has required pharmacies to fulfill birth control prescriptions. Three states are considering legislation to do the same.
Advocates of government action fear citizens acting on their beliefs. Worries columnist Ellen Goodman, "how much further do we want to expand the reach of individual conscience?"
Apparently the primary social problem today is too many people caring too much about virtue.
Goodman believes one set of moral presumptions should trump those of everyone else. Someone engaging in an activity thought to be morally wrong has a right to aid and support from others.
What of someone who believes that abortion or contraception is inimical to their commitment to heal the sick? In Goodman’s view, they are asking for "conscience without consequence."
They could just quit their jobs, she says. Which in the case of doctors and pharmacists presumably means leaving their professions.
What if people don’t follow Goodman’s advice? Coerce them. Chris Taylor of the Planned Parenthood Advocates of Wisconsin demanded "a strong penalty" for pharmacist Neil Noesen who refused to fill a birth control prescription.
What is this but allowing people to ignore conscience without consequence? Protecting people from the impact of public disapproval eliminates one of the most important social tools for imparting and shaping morals.
Moreover, using government to impose a conscienceless amorality on everyone threatens a true culture war. Goodman gets it entirely wrong when she writes: "the plea to protect their conscience is a thinly veiled ploy for conquest."
A legal prohibition on contraception would be an attempt at "conquest." Simply saying "I opt out, but I won’t stop others" seeks to preserve social harmony in a diverse and free society.
Otherwise, there is no middle ground for coexistence: whatever government decides determines everyone’s behavior. Everyone then has an added incentive to seize power and impose their beliefs on others.
The best strategy is to leave government rule-making at a minimum, limited to important issues which only government can decide. Then, as Goodman suggests, "what holds us together is the other lowly virtue, minding your own business."
Open markets allow even disagreeable people who disagree to live with a minimum of confrontation. A Chicago Planned Parenthood official argued: "A pharmacist’s personal views cannot intrude on the relationship between a woman and her doctor."
They don’t. The woman can fill her prescription elsewhere.
The refusal of any one doctor or pharmacist might be inconvenient to the customer involved. But there are more than 16,000 hospitals and 51,000 retail pharmacies across America.
Government could increase access to contraceptives by relaxing prescription requirements. In such a system everyone is able to choose. And everyone bears the cost of his or her choice.
Judy Waxman of the National Women’s Law Center charges that the refusal to fill prescriptions is "based on personal beliefs, not on legitimate medical or professional concerns." But the same could be said of a person desiring contraceptives or an abortion.
The belief that such products or procedures are legitimate is intrinsically no more valid than the belief that they are illegitimate. Surely the moral views of medical professionals should be respected by people who emphasize the importance of "choice" and "controlling one’s own body."
Unfortunately, the issue is generating widespread political battle. But public officials should remember the virtues of neutrality.
The best way to avoid social conflict is to respect everyone’s conscience whenever possible. That’s what free choice should mean in a liberal democracy like our own.