Should Doctors and Pharmacists Have a Moral Objection to Treatment?

The Washington Post reports today that the California Supreme Court ruled day before yesterday that physicians do not have the right to withhold care from a patient on the basis of the patient’s sexual orientation.  Meanwhile, this summer, religious conservatives in Washington state headed to court this year to appeal a lower court decision stating that pharmacists do not have the right to refuse to fill prescriptions to which they morally object. 

It is shocking that so many years after the AIDS epidemic, there is still question on this front.  During the earliest years of the epidemic, I lived in New York City and I chaired a group of volunteer lawyers who went into the hospital rooms of dying patients to render legal services, usually in the form of a deathbed will, sometimes in the form of a discrimination action.  I wrote a book about those years 1981-1991 called A Fragile Circle.  At that time, I saw people who were infected refused everything from care to jobs to restaurant service.  Health professionals refusing to touch patients – it was mind boggling to me.  Granted, people’s actions were not based out of religious conviction as much as primal fear (I was afraid too), but it could have been.  And on the part of many, there was a feeling that those with AIDS deserved their fate.  It was an odd and eerie time and one that fills me to this day with painful memories.  But I never believed that nearly 30 years after the start of the AIDS epidemic, we would still be debating whether or not a healthcare professional had the right to turn someone away – from either treatment or from medicine.

Is there room in our system of care for the Balkanization of healthcare?  This is one voice that says no.  If physicians, nurses and pharmacists are not willing to accept patients for who they are or what their needs are, they need to be in some other line of work.  Imagine the chaos if, based on one’s religious beliefs, lesbians with breast cancer had to hunt for a physician for treatment, or if a healthcare professional decided only to treat people of certain faiths?  It would not be a health care system because it wouldn’t be a system at all – it would be a fragmentation.  Most might think that it would not get to such an extreme and perhaps they would be right.  But I’ve seen the extreme.  And it is extremely ugly. 

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