Most states have long had laws to protect doctors and nurses who do not want to perform abortions from being fired, disciplined or sued, or from facing other legal action. Conflicts over other health care workers emerged after the morning-after pill was approved and pharmacists began refusing to fill prescriptions for it. As a result, some lost their jobs, were reprimanded or were sanctioned by state licensing boards. That prompted a number of states to consider laws last year that would explicitly protect pharmacists or, alternately, require them to fill such prescriptions.
The issue is gaining new prominence this year because of a confluence of factors. They include the heightened attention to pharmacists amid a host of controversial medical issues, such as the possible over-the-counter sale of the Plan B morning-after pill, embryonic research and testing, and debates over physician-assisted suicide and end-of-life care after the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case.
Do any of the state 'conscience laws' protect the right of patients to know, for instance, that their pharmacist refuses to dispense certain drugs, or that their physician refuses to honor an advance directive to withdraw a feeding tube under certain circumstances? As a patient, I would want to know ahead of time if the medical professionals involved in my care intended to exercise their rights under such a law, and I'd want to know if they had a plan for transferring responsibility to someone else.