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Sunday, June 11, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Danny Westneat

Morals come with medicine

Seattle Times staff columnist

Don Downing is a pioneer in helping women get the morning-after pill. So he's having trouble getting used to his new image as a right-wing ideological crusader.

It was his idea to have pharmacists give out emergency contraception, such as Plan B, without permission from doctors, who often aren't available in a pinch.

So the University of Washington pharmacy professor just shakes his head at how he now gets lumped in with anti-abortion Christian fundamentalists.

His sin? He believes pharmacists are people, too.

Downing, 55, supports letting pharmacists consider their own morals when dispensing medicine. Even though he's certain he won't always agree.

"We're not robots," Downing says. "You can't in American society deny someone the right of conscience. It's built into the fabric of this country for hundreds of years."

Issues of conscience have been in the news of late. There was the controversial vote by the Washington State Board of Pharmacy to let pharmacists refuse to dispense medication, as long as patients can easily get the drugs some other way.

And there was the Army officer at Fort Lewis, Lt. Ehren Watada, who refused to ship out to Iraq. He said he'd developed a sense that the war is immoral and illegal and so he can't in good conscience fight in it.

He's a traitor to some for failing to follow military code. And courageous to others for adhering to inner principles. If only the soldiers at Abu Ghraib had had his fortitude.

Some who find Watada a hero for his act of conscience would condemn Downing for wanting to let pharmacists do the same.

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Yes, acts of conscience are inspiring when you agree with them. Boy, are they annoying when you don't.

But here's the thing: Even the military, among the most inflexible and rule-bound of institutions, allows its workers a way to follow their inner compasses without causing chaos. Since the Iraq War started, 87 soldiers have been granted conscientious-objector status. They were either discharged or moved to noncombat duties.

Yet the notion that pharmacists might have souls, too, is dismissed as a sellout to religious extremism. My own paper just called for all seven members of the state pharmacy board to be fired, saying they had sacrificed women's health care for an ideological agenda.

Malarkey. The board is not anti-contraception or anti-abortion rights, Downing says. They're trying to honor the right to conscience — which health workers already have — while also assuring patients can get prescriptions filled.

It's a tricky balance. But making pharmacists pill-dispensing machines isn't the answer.

When he ran a pharmacy in Federal Way, Downing says he "broke the law" countless times by granting weekend refills on birth-control pills when women did not have a prescription. It was illegal but clearly in the patient's best interest, he says.

His point: Conscience can cut both ways. It's worth remembering before we turn our health-care workers, or our soldiers, into mindless robots.

Danny Westneat's column appears Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or dwestneat@seattletimes.com.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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