One of the most weaselly ways that anti-choicers undermine women’s access to reproductive health care, and especially contraception, is so-called “conscience clauses.” These purport to protect the tender religious sensibilities of health care professionals by allowing them to opt out of a particular part of their job that they disagree with. Consider this analogous hypothetical:

I work in a sporting goods store. One day, a man comes in and wants to buy a handgun. He’s had his background check, and his safety training, and has waited the required period.

I refuse to sell him one.

My conscience tells me that handguns are immoral, you see. Maybe I’m a Quaker, maybe I’ve decided this on my own interpretation of my religion, whatever. I insist that handguns are immoral and that I don’t have to participate in that immorality by supplying him with one to go do immoral things – like kill people.

He says: “I’ll only use it for target practice!”

Not good enough, I say. It’s too risky. You might shoot someone.

He says: “I’ll only use it to defend my family!”

I don’t care; maybe I’m a pacifist, maybe I don’t believe him, but I won’t sell it.

He says: “I have Second Amendment rights, and this is the job you were hired to do!”

No, I say. See this? I have an escape clause. My conscience gives me an iron-clad right to refuse to cooperate with evil.

And I get to define what evil is.

Most people think it would be inappropriate for me to have the right to evaluate the man’s justifications before allowing the sale, or for me to be able to refuse to do my job entirely.

But somehow this is presented as a reasonable approach for pharmacists to take towards birth control.

The above situation isn’t a perfect analogy, of course. Perhaps the most salient difference is that no one will die or get sick or get pregnant if I refuse to sell a person a handgun right now. Yet people can and do die or get sick or get pregnant if pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions when they are presented. Emergency contraception has to be taken within a particular number of hours after sex or rape. There aren’t always other pharmacies or other pharmacists available, so a single individual’s “conscience” can be the difference that leads to another unwanted pregnancy.

Another difference is that retail sales isn’t a highly regulated profession. People don’t just show up in the drugstore one day and get assigned to hand out drugs; they have to go to school, pursue licensure, and put a lot of work into becoming pharmacists. That’s why they’re the ones who are allowed to hand out the meds and we can’t just get Sam from the front register to fill in for the guy (and it’s usually a guy) with an objection.

Don’t even get me started on the analogous situations for all the other medicines that I could have a conscientious objection to. (cough, V*agra, cough, C*alis, cough)

So-called conscience clauses are nothing more nor less than stealth anti-choice measures designed to allow some people to continue to control women’s bodies.

4 thoughts on “A parable: What about a conscience clause for gun sellers?

  1. Question–how often do you hear of people invoking “conscience clauses” to deny men, especially white men, urgently required health procedures?

  2. Way back when, I worked at Walmart, in the sports department, selling guns. Not hand guns, because Walmart doesn’t sell hand guns, but long guns. One evening, a twitchy guy came in, and looked at a bunch of guns. He was especially interested in the black powder rifles we had in stock, and confessed to me that it was because he could not pass a background check to buy a regular rifle (when you sell a long gun, you have to call the sale into – I think it was the FBI, but ATF makes more sense? Anyway, this was pre-9/11, so it’s probably changed now). I told him that I wasn’t able to sell him guns, that I needed my manager present to do so, and he went away disappointed. Later, I told my manager, and he agreed with my decision. I never saw the guy again.

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