We are wearily familiar with the way certain religionists attempt to impose their ideas on others. You don’t have to travel back to the days of the Inquisition to see this happening. You can find examples in most societies today – sometimes in overt forms, sometimes in more subtle ways.
It doesn’t come more overt than the terrorism of Islamic extremists. That’s the dangerous end of the spectrum – dangerous, that is, to life and limb. The same goes for loony evangelicals willing to murder doctors because they believe everyone must agree with an attitude to abortion guided by antique superstition.
But what of those subtle forms? Well, how about a pharmacist who makes it difficult for you to get the medicines you need?
The UK’s General Pharmaceutical Council (GPC) is currently drawing up new regulatory standards for the profession, covering areas such as confidentiality, education and ethics. You wouldn’t think that issues of faith would be a factor here. Alas, myths and prejudices formed thousands of years ago continue to affect our daily lives, however much we like to believe we live in a rational age.
It seems that some pharmacists like to bring their prejudices to work with them. There have been cases, for example, of pharmacists refusing to supply patients with the morning-after pill, in spite of doctors having prescribed it legally and in the best interests of the patients.
I’m not suggesting that only rationalists and humanists may become pharmacists. I’m simply saying that, when you’re a pharmacist, your duty and obligation to society must override any faith you hold, not the other way around.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) is participating in the GBC’s consultation process. The BHA’s stand is, as always, very reasonable:
If pharmacists are allowed to refuse certain services to patients because they believe it conflicts with their beliefs to supply such services, it should never be the case that those accessing services should suffer. At a minimum, it should be expected that the patient or the public be referred to someone who can meet their needs – but only if this would not cause them any distress or particular inconvenience.
It’s not just pharmacists who sometimes encounter a conflict between their social responsibilities and their mystical beliefs. In the past, we’ve seen examples of registrars employed by local councils refusing to conduct civil union (ie, marriage) ceremonies for same-sex couples. In fact, one can easily draw up a list that might also include doctors and other medical professionals, government functionaries and other posts where people perform important tasks for members of the public. These are posts where the performance of the job may have profound effects on people’s lives. And they are jobs in which religion plays no part, per se.
So, should religionists be able to decide whether to carry out their job functions based on their faith?
Of course not. That’s a clear dereliction of duty, both in the strict context of the person’s employment and in the wider context of their duty to society. It is an imposition of their own, narrow beliefs on the people they should be serving.
So, what is a religionist with deep convictions to do? If, for example, a pharmacist genuinely believes that supplying a morning-after pill to a women is tantamount to the murder of a would-be baby, what is the right course of action?
It’s simple. Get another job.
Even better, don’t become a pharmacist in the first place. If you have deep-seated beliefs that make it difficult or impossible for you to carry out certain actions, don’t take a job that involves those actions. Dispensing contraceptives is a regular part of a pharmacist’s job. If your beliefs prevent you from doing that, then you are not fit to be a pharmacist. Civil unions are legal in the UK. If your faith stops you from conducting such ceremonies, you are not competent to be a registrar.
You can be religious and still be a pharmacist or registrar or hold some other post that impinges on people’s lives. Just recognise that your spiritual beliefs are a personal choice that have nothing to do with the job. So leave your faith out of it.