Oops! I almost defended Wal-Mart!

agents provocateur

I had a conversation with my Republican brother a few weeks ago, and we were shocked to find out that we actually agreed about something; I mentioned that the media focus on Wal-Mart's business practices is often unfair in that it ignores the fact that other corporations employ similar methods. I doubt that Target employees fare much better than Wal-Mart's, but since Wal-Mart is the largest employer in the United States, the focus will always be on them. Republican Brother agreed. Of course, I couldn't content myself with stopping there, and we quickly disagreed about the role that a company like Wal-Mart should play in addressing (and redressing) pay inequality, lack of reliable and affordable health care, and worker's rights. It seems to me as the largest employer in the United States, Wal-Mart has a responsibility to do better than its competitors, to behave better than its competitors. Republican Brother disagreed, but, well, he's a Republican.

But my defense of Wal-Mart was pretty tepid, since I find them to be one of the most repugnant corporations on the planet--pretty difficult for a feminist like myself to justify spending any money in a place that is currently party to the largest sexual discrimination lawsuit in the history of the EEOC. So, when three Massachusetts women decided to sue Wal-Mart for refusing to stock emergency contraception I'll admit to feeling a little smug.

But, alas, the fundies want to take me down a notch: it seems that the plaintiffs are not little Davids triumphing over the evil, corporate Goliath--they worked with several abortion rights groups prior to filing suit. The implication is that the women specifically chose to take their prescriptions to Wal-Mart knowing that the stores did not carry EC, so that they would have grounds to file suit. Well, that's pretty bad, right? I can imagine that this sort of thing is frowned upon in civil rights circles. Imagine if, during the the era of segregation, someone specifically chose to break a law, by sitting in the whites-only section of a bus for example, to prove that the law was unjust and discriminatory. Ah, if only the wonderful folks at Lifesite were around to stop Rosa Parks...


annamaria at 8:36 PM

5 spoke


at Friday, February 03, 2006 9:48:00 AM Blogger Wake of the Flood said...

Oh the shame, that such an event should not be "spontaneous." Of course it was planned. And like you rightly pointed out, so were the sit-ins at lunch counters across the Jim Crow south. Even the "spontaneous" refusal of Rosa Parks to give up her seat was not without forethought. She had been contemplating such an action and it's consequences for quite some time. Just the actual time and place were dictated by circumstance.

Now as to whether or not Wal-Mart stocks EC: how is it that so many who value personal freedom and liberty so highly have no qualms about coercing others? I fear the slippery slope we find ourselves on when we determine that even if the owners of an establishment find selling something contrary to their moral values we force them to contradict those values and sell the item anyway. In my mind it is akin to this scenario: suppose you open a small bodega and decide that you will not sell Playboy and other works of misogeny (sp?). But because that denies certain men access to something that they are guaranteed the right to read you are forced by the courts to either close the store or stock the offensive magazines. One may argue that since the magazine is available at other outlets it is wrong to force you to stock it since the men do in actuality have access to the mags. Same with the WalMart scenario and EC. The difference is that the access to EC is more difficult and not as readily available. In my thinking, that is what needs to be addressed and not for us to be forcing private corporations and citizens to act against their conscience.

Yes, there are difficult circumstances to deal with such as small communities where the only local pharmacist holds religious convictions against the use of contraceptives. Does that mean that the pharmacist loses her freedom of religion to satisfy the demands of others? Beware the tyranny of the majority. Our freedoms are maintained not in upholding them when it is easy and popular, but in the difficult arenas -- like supporting the right of white supremacists to rally in Wallingford, CT in the midst of a difficult political discussion over adding MLK, Jr. Day as a paid holiday for town employees. Or the lone pharmacist in a community not to fill certain prescriptions.

The systematic denial of access to legal contraception is a problem. And this needs to be addressed. But the short term easy solution of co-opting the rights of others to gain what we desire is not good in the long term, and is dangerous to the overall strength of our community. Rather than forcing WalMart to dispense the item, what is wrong with either using a market based response such as a competing pharmacy (a solution I'm sure your brother advocates), or lobbying for funding for state sponsored women's health clinics in convenient locales and with ready access?

at Friday, February 03, 2006 10:37:00 AM Blogger annamaria said...

I think the analogy between stocking EC and stocking Playboy is false—Playboy has no redeeming medical value. I'm anti-porn, but that doesn’t mean that I would begrudge anyone the right to produce or purchase it; there are First Amendment protections for pornography (some of them tenuous, but we’ll leave that for a different conversation). But the difference is that if I own a bookstore or convenience store and I refuse to stock pornographic materials, I am not causing any harm to my customers. The inability to purchase a magazine does not place their health at risk. I can make that decision as a proprietor because in doing so I am not imposing my morality in such a way that prevents my customers from getting medical attention. Pharmacists are health professionals, and such they are required to “do no harm.” They took that oath when they signed up for the job, and if they can’t uphold their end of the bargain, they don’t deserve their jobs.

Birth control has been legal and available in the United States for decades, certainly when these people went to school to become pharmacists they were aware of its existence. EC is nothing more than a strong dose of birth control (something that can actually be replicated at home with a regular pill pack), so it’s not like this is some new drug that pharmacists could not have been aware of when they chose their career. If I am a vegan, would I take a job as a butcher? If I am an atheist, would I choose a career in the church? Of course not. Pharmacists have a job, a very important one, to dispense medication as directed by a doctor—surely they knew that doctors often prescribe birth control and it would fall within their job duties to fill those prescriptions. If that vegan did become a butcher, wouldn’t we be right to criticize their efforts to get out of touching animal products because it violates their personal ethics? Wouldn’t we all say, “Well, why in the world did you become a butcher, then?” Could I be allowed to take a job as a church youth director, and then refuse to actually talk about god because I’m an atheist? Would the church have a case for having me fired? Or should my job be spared because teaching that god exists is contrary to my beliefs?

And it’s not just EC that concerns me. The other day I wrote about government officials in Australia that want to ban the HPV vaccine, which is an extension of this same issue. I’m a firm believer in religious freedom, but there needs to be a point where we recognize that another’s belief system cannot trump mine, particularly when it could place my health and/or life at risk. That my right to medical attention is just as if not more important than another’s right to believe whatever s/he believes.

at Friday, February 03, 2006 1:18:00 PM Blogger Wake of the Flood said...

AM -- there needs to be a point where we recognize that another’s belief system cannot trump mine,

Within all professions/occupations there are moral dilemas that arise with folks taking differing positions. And at times it will cause us to say "no, I will not do that as part of my job. I will not compromise my beliefs." Most of the time these are not life altering choices for the other parties involved. Occasionally they are. Such is the case of the pharmicist. By your argument one cannot practice medicine at all unless one is willing to perform ALL medical procedures whether one agrees with the validity or morality of the procedure or not. In that sense, you are declaring that medical practitioners must be morally neutral. In my experience, professionally and personally, I find that they are not. I especially see this in the way that doctors deal with end of life issues with both patients and family.

My point was that we are misreading the issue when we see the only solution as forcing people into an ethical void. I began by quoting from your response. Does your position only hold for you, or is it equally valid for those you disagree with? Sadly, there is little space for civil discourse in America because too many have been blinded by the "rightness" of their cause. This discussion is deeply connected to the one over on Kurt and my blog on love and truth. Your response there highlighted exactly the type of response to this issue that will lead toward solutions instead of a further polarization. Of course, such can only occur when as a society we no longer demonize those with whom we disagree, and respect their humanity.

at Friday, February 03, 2006 1:37:00 PM Blogger annamaria said...

We have an expectation of medical professionals that we do not for other professions--the nature of their role in society is so important that they cannot be allowed to dictate who gets what medical treatment based on nothing other than their own beliefs. I agree that there needs to be a better solution than either forcing women to drive from drug store to drug store until she can get her prescription filled or forcing a pharmacist to disregard their own morality or face losing their job. But, unfortunately, there is no alternative *at this time.* Maybe when we can rely on market competition or state-funded clinics (and both of your proposed solutions have merit) then the odd pharmacist refusing to fill a prescription won't be as troubling (though, in my opinion, it will still be wrong).

And I don't feel in the least bit hypocritical or apologetic when I argue that it is the pharmacist's morality that must be ignored (at least in the context of performing their job) because it is the pharmacists that has all the power in this situation. The pharmacist has the luxury of choosing that profession, of espousing their beliefs, and in doing so they are using their privilege and power to lord over women--and to disregard those women's beliefs. In the case of EC, time is of the essence, and if Wal-Mart or Sam's Club is the only pharmacy in the area, and when pharmacists not only refuse to fill prescriptions but also refuse to refer patients to a different pharmacy, women face more than an inconvenience--they face the possibility of an unwanted pregnancy and/or a surgical abortion. The pharmacist won't have to worry beyond the amount of time it takes to turn that woman away, but if she can't find another pharmacists to help her, her life is irrevocably changed.

And I'm glad you mentioned the post over at your (and Kurt's) blog because I agree that the two are very closely aligned. Once there is recognition that we all have the right to our beliefs, and that there is much, much more commonality of belief than there is difference, we can work together to find solutions to pernicious issues like this one. But sometimes I feel like I'm much more willing to work with the other side than they are willing to work with me!

at Monday, February 06, 2006 12:29:00 PM Blogger Kurt said...

Wow. A genuine discussion here with articulate points made on each side in a respectful manner that affirms rather than negates the dignity of the contrary point of view. Would that others were taking notice and could actually lead this country toward solutions instead of secure their hold of the power they have by name calling and division.
Whenever these type of arguments come up, I am reminded of the description I heard atrributed to the Bill of Rights and the founding fathers' intent with them - that our rights were designed as a shield to protect us from the power of the majority. Somewhere along the way, they have been converted or beaten into a sword which we swing to assail those of a different mindset than ourselves; we can effectly ignore the validity of the opposing side simply by invoking "our rights."
This is not unique to the liberal or conservative; instead it has become a balm to soothe the sting of an argument no one can win.


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