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Religion Is Not An Excuse For Refusing to Give Medical Care

Friday, June 06 2008 @ 05:52 AM CDT

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Jill Filipovic

The pro-life movement cares more about social control than the lives it claims to protect.

We’ve all heard the stories about the nutbag pharmacists, nurses and doctors who refuse to provide women with adequate health care because of their “religion.” Women are refused emergency contraception, and even standard birth control pills and devices, with alarming regularity. Anti-choice groups have pushed for “conscience clauses” in state law, allowing medical professionals to refuse to do their jobs.

But it’s not just about contraception any more: It’s also about the right to have children. Pamela reports that a woman in California was refused IVF treatment by a doctor who said that treating her would be against his religion.

Now why in the world would a doctor who disagrees with IVF be working at a fertility clinic, you ask? Because he doesn’t oppose IVF, exactly — he just doesn’t like lesbians, and this woman happened to be one.

But at least they’re being honest here: It’s not about “life.” It’s not about babies. It’s about social control. It’s about whose lives are deemed worthy, and which choices fit into the narrow worldview of religious conservatives. The “pro-life” opposition to abortion and contraception doesn’t come from a serious concern for all those fertilized egg-babies out there; it comes out of a concern for changing gender roles, and the evolution of the family into a unit that is increasingly non-patriarchal, egalitarian and diverse. It’s very much about a class of viewpoints: The feminist/humanist/scientific/modern view, which wants to allow individuals the right to self-determination, and the conservative/regressive view, which wants to take us back to a Golden Era of the family that never actually existed in real life, wherein men were in charge and women knew their place.

It’s a vision that most people in this country don’t want — which is why anti-choicers and conservatives have to hang their arguments on abortion and babies. But as this case shows, it’s not about that at all. It’s about flat-out hostility towards women who buck the role these men would like to pin on them.

Now, to be clear, I do think that conscience clauses have a reasonable place. I don’t think that doctors, nurses or other medical professionals should be forced to perform any procedure the patient wants, even if it violates the doctor’s moral/ethical standards. But I do think that medical professionals should have to do the job they signed up for. That is, if you’re a dermatologist, I can see why it’s not reasonable to expect you to perform an abortion or write someone a birth control prescription. If you went into plastic surgery, you probably shouldn’t be required to freeze someone’s eggs or try in-vitro fertilization just because your patient asks you to. But if the thing you object to is a part of the normal course of your job, and was a totally foreseeable consequences of you taking that job, I don’t have much sympathy. Pharmacists, for example, are not being asked to do anything now that they weren’t doing 30 years ago; so chances are, when these guys went to pharmacy school, they knew they were going to have to fill birth control prescriptions. Doctors who specialize in in-vitro fertilization probably knew that they were going to be asked to help women get pregnant — and they should have known that they don’t get to pick and choose only the women they deem “fit” according to their religious standards. Sorry, but I don’t get to refuse to prepare meat if I’m a chef at a steak house just because I decided to go vegetarian or converted to Hinduism 10 years into my job. If I work at a casino, I don’t get to refuse admission to Christians because I think gambling is a sin. If I work at Barnes & Noble, I don’t get to refuse to sell feminist books to men because I decide feminism should be a woman-centered movement. I either do my job or I quit.

Making reasonable religious accommodations is important, and I’m not an absolutist who says that your religion should always be left at home. It’s not hard to take reasonable actions — for example, in a lot of jobs, it’s not too tough to let your Jewish employees have Saturday off instead of Sunday, or let Orthodox employees go home a little early on Fridays. Or, if you’re in a large hospital and you know one of the doctors is strongly anti-choice, it’s reasonable to ask another doctor to perform an emergency abortion, if there are lots of doctors around and prepared to do the procedure.

But accommodations become unreasonable when they burden the people you are supposed to be serving. Medicine is a unique profession in that you’re dealing with peoples’ lives and their health, and refusing to provide them care is a lot more serious than, say, the guy at the corner store closing up shop a few hours early once a week, or one of the attorneys at your firm leaving early on Friday.

And as Pamela points out, the IVF case is particularly interesting because it’s about who the woman is, not which procedure she wants. So this isn’t about refusing to fill a prescription because you say it kills babies; it’s about you refusing to provide medical services to someone because you dislike their identity. If I think that we need more white babies in America, should I be allowed to refuse to perform sterilizations on white women, or refuse to give them birth control — but push those options on women of color? (Not an unheard of dynamic, btw). If I’m a doctor, should I be able to refuse to provide health care to someone based on their race or their gender? There isn’t even a need to get into the question of immutable characteristics (to stem the argument that homosexuality is a choice and therefore “different”) — how about if I refuse medical care to someone based on who they voted for in the last Presidential election? Based on their religion? Or how about, if they don’t believe in evolution, I refuse to give them any of the vaccines or drugs were developed based on our knowledge of evolutionary biology? After all, we don’t want to violate anyone’s religious beliefs. Or maybe I’ll become a Scientologist and then go work at a pharmacy, spending my days refusing to fill just about any prescription for anything. Or what if I decide to follow a religion which says that I’m not allowed to touch anyone of the opposite sex? Maybe then I’ll go work as an EMT or an ER doc and tell injured men that, sorry, they’re gonna have to stop their own bleeding for now.

After all, it’s my religion, motherfuckers. What are you gonna do?


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