Keep Your God Away From My Drugs

07/17/2006 01:41 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Next time I'm bored, I think what I'll do is, become a pharmacist, and then convert to Christian Science. That way I can amuse myself by declining to fill any and every prescription that customers bring my way, claiming a "conflict" between my professional duties and my "religious beliefs." Won't that be fun? Turning what should be a straightforward professional transaction into the drug store equivalent of the Monty Python cheese shop sketch?

"Do you HAVE amoxicillin?"

"Yes, indeed, we do."

"Well, then, please fill this prescription for it. My child has an ear infection."

"Ah. No, sorry. Can't do it. Don't believe in it, you see. Medications, chemicals, all that."

"But this IS a drug store?"

"Oh, yes, absolutely..."

Absurd? You (and I) wish. Because dig this from the Washington Post of Sunday, July 16: "For (woman's name), her duties as a nurse began to conflict with her Christian faith when the county health clinic where she worked near Memphis required she dispense the morning-after pill. "'I felt like my religious liberties were being violated,'" said (name), 49, of Atoka, Tenn. "'I could not live with myself if it did it. I answer to God first and foremost.'"

Memo to this lady: Certainly no one wants you to not live with yourself, if for no other reason than it would require finding two residences--one for you, and one for yourself. That would impose a considerable financial burden on both you and yourself. But exercising your religious beliefs has made you incompetent as a nurse. Kindly resign your medical post and seek employment from God. The clinic will be happy to give you a sterling referral.

I mean, right? Things from sea to shining sea aren't fraught enough? Now we have to deal with "professionals" who wish to decide which parts of their jobs they choose to perform and which they can refuse?

The lede of the Post article:

"In Chicago, an ambulance driver refused to transport a patient for an abortion. In California, fertility specialists rebuffed a gay woman seeking artificial insemination. In Texas, a pharmacist turned away a rape victim seeking the morning-after pill."

Reasonable people can disagree over whether these and similar instances are loathsome or merely deplorable. But one thing we can all agree on is this: Being a professional means, before and above everything else, that you do your damn job no matter how you "feel" about it. Otherwise, we should reconcile ourselves to a world in which the following fun scenarios become routine:

A fireman who happens to be a pious Muslim races into a burning building, where he hoists the unconscious form of an old man and prepares to evacuate him from the inferno. It then dawns on the fireman that the room is a workshop in which the man carves Christian figurines and crosses. Obedient to his most deeply held beliefs that, among other things, Allah is never to be represented in object or image, the fireman drops the poor bastard like a hot potato and gets the hell out.

An emergency room physician, who happens to be an Orthodox Jew, is on the job when a guy staggers in. Patient presents with severe stomach pain. Pre-diagnostic work-up reveals patient has just scarfed humongo lobster at swank seafood eatery. Doc is religiously grossed out and runs away. Patient convulses, falls off gurney, cracks head, croaks.

An attorney agrees to represent a client up on manslaughter charges. As their professional relationship evolves, it becomes clear to the lawyer (an ardent Christian) that his client, in addition to being guilty of manslaughter, is the Anti-Christ and is "indwelled" by Satan. The lawyer throws the case and subverts the sentencing hearing.

In all of these (so far imaginary) instances, and in the real-life ones noted earlier, we have the spectacle of ostensible professionals refusing to provide services for someone on the tenuous, iffy grounds that their religion prompts them to disapprove of the victim or patient or client, or the procedure mandated.

And not just in the provinces or among the oddball fanatical few. Joe Lieberman is currently being properly pilloried for expressing sympathy for Catholic hospitals whose staffs just wouldn't feel right giving contraceptive drugs to--of all people!--rape victims. Because wasn't Hippocrates a Catholic? In a way? "In Connecticut," Lieberman said, in a quote that they will chisel on his political tombstone, "it shouldn't take more than a short ride to get to another hospital."

Funny? But wait. Here's the punch line:

They are the ones--the doctors and nurses and pharmacists--who feel violated.

It is not enough that they hold their beliefs; now they want (while being paid) to impose the consequences of those beliefs, not only on "others," but on others in need, in times of trauma, and in instances in which dispassionate, efficient, competent professionalism is most called for.

I was going to say, "It amazes me that, in this day and age, this kind of thing is even an issue." But I won't. Because it doesn't amaze me. Not any more. Forget the Republicans' vile, supremely greedy project of "undoing the New Deal." We've entered an era in which the most ardent believers in the most primitive myths want to undo the mother of all New Deals, i.e., the Enlightenment.

If global warming makes us sad, then we're going to pretend it doesn't exist. If we find it inspiring to think that a hundred stem cells in a Petri dish (which possess less consciousness and personality and all-around biological vim than a June bug) represent the sacredness of human life, then we're going to forbid their use for research, although we will loudly applaud the ongoing slaughter of tens of thousands of grown-up stem cells in the form of Iraqis, who "hate" "our" "freedom." If the Bible helps us think we're going to Heaven after we die, then we're going to ignore hundreds of years' worth of chemistry, anthropology, paleontology, and geology, and insist that the earth is six thousand years old, tops, and dismiss the ten million consistent findings of evolution as "just a theory."

As we now see, every generation produces its own very special crop of numbskulls; we happen to blessed to live in a time in which ours possess political power. And so the trumpet summons us to a battle we thought had been won in the 19th century. We are going to have to insist, over and over again to these people, that one plus one equals two even if they don't think it should, or if they sincerely feel it really doesn't, or if they can find a verse in the Bible (or the Torah, or the Koran) that says otherwise. We are going to have to remind them, repeatedly, as one would a child with a learning disability, that their religion may be their private source of consolation, comfort, and meaning, but that it has no business determining how they treat others in the public realm of professional conduct, as long as the tasks they are called upon to perform are--as these are--legal, ethical, and within their competence.

We are also going to have to inquire as to which pharmacy chains these jokers work for, that we may boycott, abjure, and generally condemn and deride and make fun of them until they fire these idiots and replace them with actual pros.

Meanwhile, all you conscience-stricken pharmacists and conflicted e.m.t.'s and pious clinical nurses: Do your jobs. Fill the scrips and ferry the patients and give the treatment.

Or else have the simple decency to display the courage of your convictions and accept the ramifications of your most cherished beliefs. And quit.

But don't try to weasel through the cracks and claim you can have it both ways, drawing a professional's salary while cherry-picking the cases of which you approve, while turning up your religious nose at the ones you deem unacceptable. In so doing you're abusing the public in two ways: Not only are you denying a needed service and thereby causing unnecessary physical and emotional suffering, but you're doing it in a particularly un-American and, indeed, medieval way--by foisting your religion on others.

Oh, and: You're also standing in the way of someone else who could do your job better. If God comes first and foremost, then go work for Him. Leave the treatment of strangers (who have values and beliefs other than yours) to professionals for whom God may or may not come first at home, but who know that, at work, the job is Job One.