The South Dakota Senate has rejected, by a vote of 22 to 12, a bill that would have removed legal protection from pharmacists who refuse to sell or dispense contraceptives including so-called “emergency contraceptives” in violation of their consciences. Senate Bill 164 proposed that a pharmacist’s refusal to sell a drug that violated his or her conscience constituted impermissible” government intrusion” into citizen’s private lives by a “government entity.”
Current South Dakota law allows pharmacists to follow their conscience and refuse to dispense medication if they believe it would cause an abortion or “destroy an unborn child.”
South Dakota is one of only a small number of states that affirmatively protects pharmacists’ freedom of conscience. Other states providing some degree of protection for pharmacists are Arkansas, California, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, Mississippi, and North Carolina.
In recent years, pharmacists have faced an increasingly strident and public attack on their rights of conscience. Not surprisingly, this attack directly relates to the ongoing battle over abortion. Following Roe v. Wade, the issue of healthcare rights of conscience focused on the freedom of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals to abstain from participating in surgical abortions. Although this freedom is generally accepted by society, in the past decade pro-abortion groups have expanded their attacks on conscience, especially with regard to pharmacists’ role in dispensing Plan B, the so-called “morning-after pill,” the abortifacient RU-486, and oral contraceptives. The growing trend is to demand access to these drugs for patients at the expense of the freedom of conscience of healthcare professionals.
Freedom of conscience is a long-respected tradition in our nation, particularly for medical professionals. In fact, our nation’s founding fathers recognized that rights of conscience and the free exercise of religion were essential to the foundation of a democratic nation. As James Madison stated:
The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate . . . . It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to him.
Unfortunately, most commentators have slipped into the habit of using the language of tolerance and accommodation rather than framing this debate for what it truly is—a struggle to validate and protect the rights of conscience of individuals.