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Illinois' Illogical Attack on Conscience is Pennsylvania's Gain

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.
A court has recently stopped Illinois from enforcing a rule that denied freedom of conscience to pharmacists. This is a cause for celebration and an excellent legal win. But as the left reacts hysterically to the supposed lack of access to Plan B that will result, one pharmacist’s story perfectly demonstrates the fundamental flaw at the core of any effort to deny freedom of conscience: compelled violations of conscience won’t expand access, they’ll reduce it.

In April 2005, Gov. Rod Blagojevich issued an emergency rule, bypassing the usual regulatory process, mandating that every Illinois pharmacist must dispense all “contraceptives” (including potential abortifacients like Plan B) “upon demand.”

David Scimio was a Christian pro-life pharmacist suddenly facing a government mandate that would force him to violate his conscience and assist in the termination of a human life. He became one of the first pharmacists to challenge Blagojevich’s executive order, one of the first shots fired in the recent wave of attacks on conscience freedoms.

The supposed purpose of Blagojevich’s emergency rule—and all such denials of conscience rights for medical professionals—is that “access” to abortion, abortifacients, sterilizations, assisted suicide, contraception, etc., requires that those opposed to being personally involved in these practices must sacrifice their conscience.

Strangely, these claims are often buttressed by appeals to widespread support in the medical community for these same practices. If medical professionals think abortion is such a great and noble practice, then why is it necessary to force medical professionals to perform them? It’s like East Berlin telling the world that its citizens love it there…while it patrols a wall to keep them in.

Scimio worked at an Albertsons’ pharmacy in suburban Chicago. The American Pharmacists Association recognized his right of conscience, and Albertsons always had as well, perhaps recognizing that the way to keep good professionals on staff was to treat them like professionals. Other pharmacists at Albertsons and at other pharmacies within blocks of Albertsons would dispense Plan B. Yet, the fact that Scimio and a few others like him would not personally dispense Plan B was deemed an “emergency” demanding immediate government action. And so Blagojevich, flanked by Planned Parenthood representatives, announced his unilateral action at a press conference.

Scimio immediately saw the threat to his conscience and called the Christian Legal Society’s Center for Law and Religious Freedom. With the support of Alliance Defending Freedom and our allies, Scimio challenged Blagojevich’s emergency rule. But the court deemed the case moot when Albertsons said it would accommodate him, defending Scimio from Blagojevich. Unfortunately, Albertsons resolve began to crack months later, and Scimio again found his ability to serve his patients imperiled.

Refusing to cave to Blagojevich’s demands that he violate his conscience, but discouraged by the war on conscience in Ilinois, Scimio instead moved to a state and position where his conscience would be protected. He lives and practices today with his family in Pennsylvania.

What did Illinois gain by Blagojevich’s action? Did the “emergency rule” result in expanded access to Plan B? No. It resulted in the loss of (at least) one conscientious pharmacist who competently provided Chicago area patients with a full range of pharmaceuticals with a single exception. Pennsylvania gained an excellent and consciencious pharmacist (and family).

Government compulsion of individuals to violate their conscience is unconstitutional and immoral. But it’s also dumb. It is built on the flawed premise that if government tells someone to act in a way that they believe to be immoral that they will ultimately cave.

In other words, it is built on a flawed understanding of what conscience is. Those who would compel their fellow citizens to assist in or pay for abortions or similar deeply divisive acts act as though conscientious objectors merely have a philosophical disagreement—a difference of opinion they should be able to set aside when what’s really important (their paycheck) is threatened. A
survey of faith-based medical professionals showed how erroneous this understanding of conscience is. More than 9 out of every 10 said, “I would rather stop practicing medicine altogether than be forced to violate my conscience.”

Fortunately for medical professionals of conscience like Scimio, and the patients they serve, there remain places in this country where they can practice their profession without the heavy hand of government seeking to compel them to alter their values.

Supporters of anti-conscience laws like to imagine a doctor who won’t perform abortions in some remote part of Alaska or west Texas, citing this as a reason to compel violations of conscience. Of course, they never limit the laws to those situations but instead apply them with fervor to professionals like Scimio who are literally surrounded by colleagues who don’t have the same moral objections.

But even assuming that hypothetical situation, compelling a doctor with a conscientious objection to perform abortions in rural Alaska won’t increase access to abortion there. It is far more likely to reduce access to every other service—including every women’s health service—as that doctor packs up his practice and moves to a place where his conscience is respected.

As Scimio’s story shows, conscience cannot be purchased as cheaply as the abortion industry pretends. And those states that respect it will benefit. Congratulations to the legal teams with ACLJ and the Becket Fund that ultimately prevailed against Blagojevich’s rule and brought that respect back to Illinois as well.

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