Joy Thompson and Hazelle Palmer betray a fundamental misunderstanding of conscientious objection in their criticism of Concerned Pharmacists for Conscience (Don’t let drug stores become pulpits, Globe & Mail, 26 April 2000).
Pharmacists who have moral objections to dispensing the morning after pill usually assert that a new, unique and living human being begins to exist – and pregnancy begins – with the union of sperm and egg. This union they call conception or fertilization. These are hardly novel propositions in an era when fertilization is accomplished routinely in petri dishes, the resulting early embryos kept alive and matured pending implantation – or civil litigation.
The morning after pill prevents the union of sperm and egg only if it is taken in time to suppress ovulation. In other cases, it brings about the death of the early embryo by preventing implantation in the womb. This is the crux of the moral problem faced by pharmacists who hold that it is gravely wrong to deliberately cause the death of the developing human being at any point after conception.
Planned Parenthood and The Society of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Canada think that the morning after pill is a good thing. They call it ‘emergency contraception’, they claim that it does not cause abortions, and they ridicule those who disagree. “Out of step with medical community”, “professionally irresponsible, or blatantly uninformed”, and “inventing a controversy” are the accusations hurled from the Planned Parenthood pulpit at conscientious objectors.
The controversy being invented here arises from a difference in terminology. Thompson and Palmer et al define conception – and the beginning of pregnancy – as implantation of the early embryo in the womb, not as the union of sperm and egg. Thus, in their view, ‘contraception’ includes not only drugs or devices that prevent conception (fertilization), but anything that prevents implantation of the early embryo. That is why they describe the morning after pill as a ‘contraceptive’, regardless of its mechanism, and insist that it does not interfere with pregnancy. In their lexicon, the existence of the early embryo following fertilization does not count as pregnancy unless implantation occurs, and the destruction of the embryo prior to implantation is not abortion. The public can hardly be expected to make sense of the present dispute unless these points are clarified.
Out of step with medical community? The Canadian Medical Association advises physicians who have moral objections to abortion to explain this to their patients, and insists that there be no discrimination against physicians who refuse to perform or assist with abortions. Dr. John Williams, the CMA’s Director of Ethics, recently confirmed that doctors are not obliged to refer patients for abortions. “Respect for the right of personal decision in this area must be stressed,” states CMA policy. Is the respect given to doctors to be denied pharmacists and other health care professionals because powerful interests are able to shout them down?
Contrary to Thompson and Palmer’s assertions, conscientious objectors are not trying to prevent the introduction of abortifacient or contraceptive drugs, nor are they attempting to block access to them. These are impossible objectives for such a vulnerable minority with limited means. Instead, they simply ask that they not be hounded out of their professions because they will not do what they believe to be gravely wrong. Does The Best Country in the World have room for such people?
Sean Murphy, Administrator
Protection of Conscience Project