Pharmacist, doctor, and geneticist discuss ways to stay professional and ethical
By Agnieszka Krawczynski
Photo: Father Rob Allore, SJ, pharmacist Cristina Alarcon, and doctor Williard Johnston. (Agnieszka Krawczynski / The B.C. Catholic)
Amid debates on the ethics of euthanasia and birth control, professionals on the frontlines are finding ways to do their jobs while honouring their consciences.
“I knew when I entered pharmacy school I would have some ethical challenges,” Cristina Alarcon, a pharmacist for over 25 years, said on a medical ethics panel at the Vancouver Club Jan. 27.
“At the time, the only thing I foresaw was, because I’m Catholic, the issue of birth control,” she said. But “there were other issues around the corner.”
After becoming a pharmacist, Alarcon found herself butting heads with her professional college, whose code of ethics said those who objected to dispensing birth control had to do so anyway.
“Anything you had a moral objection to, you were essentially forced to dispense, as long as it was legal,” she said.
“I lobbied the college for many years, along with colleagues, to help them understand. I don’t carry every wheelchair, every medical product, in my pharmacy, and people can go elsewhere and they’re fine with that. Why is it that when something is controversial or that I’m morally objecting to, you’re forcing me to go against my conscience?”
After years of discussions, the college wrote conscience protection into its code of ethics. “Now, we do have the freedom to opt out, which is fantastic, but there are still colleagues who say if you don’t want to provide, you should not be in the pharmacy,” said Alarcon.
It’s a struggle many medical professionals are facing. Dr. Williard Johnston, a Vancouver family doctor and a strong opponent of assisted suicide, said there’s danger in this “in or out” mentality.
“There are academic papers that say those who will not provide any service that is legal must simply excuse themselves from the health-care system or send themselves into a corner of it where they don’t have to deal with these issues,” he said, sitting next to Alarcon on the panel.
This creates an ethical “monoculture” that is actually dangerous to society, he said.
“In agriculture there are perils to monoculture – where you just grow one thing and use herbicides and pesticides to suppress all other life forms,” said Johnston. In forestry ... a monoculture of one particular tree is not going to give you the best forest in the long run,” he said.
An ethical monoculture is a “soft totalitarianism” that is “starting to push really hard into every part of our society.”
Panelist Father Rob Allore, SJ, pastor at St. Mark’s Parish and a geneticist at the University of British Columbia, said advances in his field are exciting, but also pose many ethical questions.
Genetic technology has so advanced that people can have their genes scanned to find out what serious medical conditions they may be at risk for, but that information can be difficult to accept without some context.
“How do we understand ourselves as human beings? That’s the space in which we receive the information,” he said.
Part of the answer lies in family, community, and understanding the nature of the human person, he said.
“As human beings, we have walked with each other and figured out how to deal with being older or having muscular dystrophy or having anemia. If we carry it as communities, people aren’t so frightened about it. If we are isolated and feel we have to carry this all by ourselves, it affects us a lot. Community is very important.”
Genetic research, while capable of many positive developments such as treating blood diseases and diagnosing what drugs a particular tumour will react to, can also be used unethically.
“It’s so powerful that if we don’t know who we are and what to do with this wonderful technology, we’re going to make a mess of it,” said Father Allore.
The medical ethics event was hosted by City in Focus, a Vancouver-based Christian organization committed to “caring for the soul of the city” through public forums and events on issues such as workplace ethics, mental health, and faith.
Alarcon agreed that professionals must resist monoculture. She told the audience that she has had mothers of happy children come to thank her, many years later, for not dispensing birth control.
“Someone might say: ‘You refused something. You can’t do that.’ But refusal doesn’t always mean a negative outcome,” she said.
“People used to complain that the Church and state were too hand in hand – that there was imposition that ‘you must do this.’ Now, there’s imposition from the other side. If we want to have freedom in society, we need to be tolerant to all views.”