Protecting the conscience: A battle between pharmacists and Washington state

August 22, 2016

Pharmacists in Washington state must now provide abortion-causing drugs to customers even if it violates their consciences to do so. After a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, the state’s requirement that all pharmacists must make Ella and Plan B available is in full force. As a result, any pharmacists whose consciences will not allow them to participate in abortion by providing these drugs will not be able to lawfully practice their professions in Washington state.

The state of Washington has decided that its interest in making these abortion drugs available is a higher priority than the consciences of some of its citizens. The state’s imposition of its requirement on the Stormans family illustrates the extremes to which it has decided to go in order to enforce its abortion agenda. The family has been in the pharmacy profession for more than 60 years. Until the state decided universal access to abortion-causing drugs was its priority, the family routinely, and willingly, referred customers who sought these drugs to one of more than 30 other pharmacies within a five mile radius of their business. During this time, no one, not one person, was ever denied access to these drugs, and the Stormans continued to fulfill their calling to serve their community with clear consciences.

The state no longer considers this successful compromise to be good enough, despite the fact that this referral process is even approved by the American Pharmacists Association. Under the governor’s direction, the Washington State Pharmacy Commission adopted a new regulation in 2005 that required every pharmacist and pharmacy in the state to sell Ella and Plan B drugs, regardless of their religious and conscience claims. No other impediment was targeted. Pharmacies could still refer customers to other stores for a wide range of other business, economic, and convenience reasons. They just couldn’t claim a conscience objection.

The place of the greater burden is clear. Those seeking these drugs can easily find another pharmacy, but the faithful cannot find another conscience. Washington state should acknowledge that they are crushing people of faith in order to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.

The state’s total lack of concern for conscience in this matter is distressing. Scripture describes the human conscience as an independent, inner voice that acts as a counselor and judge to instruct us to act according to God’s moral law (Rom. 2:12-16). It is God’s gift to help us to discern right from wrong and to choose to do right. As we all have experienced, its voice of condemnation or commendation is inescapable. Those whose conscience has been shaped by God’s truth understand that they must answer to God Himself if they act contrary to what His word teaches (James 4:17). Unless a person’s actions are clearly contrary to God’s revealed moral law, no external force or authority should require that person to violate the guidance of his or her conscience. It is, quite simply, intended by God to be inviolable.  

The state of Washington has clearly chosen to violate this space, however. It has made access to abortion not only a universal right, but the provision of access a universal requirement. By doing so, it has set itself up as a higher authority than God himself. What’s a person of conscience to do when government cannot discern between right and wrong and dictates that he or she must engage in what is wrong? The first Christian disciples answered that question when they declared, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29). The Stormans family and many other committed Christian pharmacists in Washington state are now being forced into the position of either violating the law or giving up their calling as pharmacists.

It doesn’t have to come to this, however. There is a solution. It is the Conscience Protection Act. This bill prevents the federal government and state and local governments that receive federal financial assistance for health-related activities from penalizing or discriminating against a health care provider based on the provider's refusal to be involved in, or provide coverage for, abortion. The bill doesn’t deny access to the abortion drugs in question to anyone who wants them. It simply prevents government from punishing people whose consciences will not allow them to provide them. It will protect the consciences of the Stormans and other people of faith from the kind of heavy-handed, ideological tyranny being waged against them in Washington state right now.

This bill is worthy of our support. It has already been passed in the House of Representatives, by an overwhelming vote of 245-182. It must still be passed by the Senate and signed into law by the president. This may seem like a daunting task, but we must try. We can begin by praying that God will intervene on behalf of His people. With God involved, what at first seems unlikely becomes very possible. In addition, we can contact our senators and insist that they pass the Conscience Protection Act this year.

The Stormans family and thousands of other faithful Christians are depending on us. Their very ability to fulfill their calling from God is at risk. In coming to their aid, we will find ourselves working in defense of God’s amazing gift to all humanity—the inviolable human conscience.

Barrett Duke

Barrett Duke is now the executive director of the Montana Southern Baptist Convention. He is the former vice president for Public Policy and Research at the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. Read More by this Author