Sisterhood Blog

Where’s the Concern for Women’s Morals in ‘Conscience Clauses’?

By Sarah Seltzer

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A small case in Iowa seems representative of what’s happening in regards to women’s bodies these days. A woman, suffering from uterine bleeding, needed a medication to stop the bleeding. Her nurse called in a valid prescription, but things didn’t go smoothly. As Irin Carmon at Jezebel reports, when the nurse spoke to a pharmacist at an Idaho Walgreen’s, the pharmacist “demanded to know whether the patient had had an abortion, which the nurse refused due to privacy laws. When the nurse asked for a referral, the pharmacist hung up.”

It was a shocking story, and showed how many “pro-life” activists are more concerned with shaming women and feeling smug than actually saving life (although to be fair, even some who call themselves anti-abortion activivsts were appalled by the pharmacist’s callousness). While legal action was sought by Planned Parenthood, which employed the nurse, it’s not clear at this point that the pharmacist directly violated broader so-called “conscience clauses” in place in Idaho, even though the patient’s life was potentially in danger.

On a moral level, however, the issues at stake are obvious and huge. It seems that we have more sympathy encoded in the law for pharmacists who feel dodgy giving a woman a life-saving prescription post-abortion than we do for a woman who is potentially in pain, in fear and in this case, in bodily peril.

In cases like these, where so much attention is given to the moral compunction of health care providers, I always wonder where the same attention is for considering the moral imperatives of women? In Jewish ethical thought, we are always careful to weigh potential outcomes against one another. I always think of Tevye saying “on the other hand…on the other hand” as shorthand for this process. Even though we don’t always come to the same decision, it’s a process I respect.

But that sort of back-and-forth rational consideration gets completely lost in America when it comes to women’s concerns about their own health. It’s too bad if a pharmacist has to dispense a medication he frowns upon, but is that the most pressing issue here? I wonder if we would we accept that argument if the pharmacist, say, belonged to a sect which disapproved of all modern medicine and refused to fill a penicillin prescription. And what if a women feels that an abortion or birth control is the moral choice, and that being harassed by her pharmacist is a violation of her morals? Maybe the woman who needs a prescription feels her conscience compels her to make her choice. Where is the law’s concern for her? How have we gotten to the point where her voice counts for so little even when her body is the one in danger?

This was just one incident in Idaho, but it is all too indicative of the national climate. Unfortunately, as new conservative legislatures across the country focus on repealing women’s rights before they even start balancing budgets, and the House tries to repeal health reform, this kind of gross violation is only the tip of the iceberg.


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