Monday, December 05, 2005

The effect of ethics

I dislike animal research.

I fully appreciate the benefits of animal research, would not seek to ban it altogether, and understand that it is a necessary evil of modern society. On the other hand, many of the techniques are cruel and a fair percentage of research using animals isn't necessary. I personally have no desire to cause pain to animals (at least, not those with with backbones... I have fewer qualms when it comes to insects and other invertebrates, although there are certain animals within these groups I would be hesitant to experiment on) and having worked in animal research once, I'm well aware of the pain that can be inflicted even under the best animal welfare regulations.

The ethical stance that I've adopted has real world consequences for me as a biologist, and these are consequences I have accepted. Much of molecular biology, including the best paying jobs, involve research with mammals (mice in particular), and by refusing to work on mice, I have willingly and knowingly cut myself out from a large part of the job market.

I mention this because of the recent action by 4 Illinois pharmacists who refuse to dispense emergency contraception on the grounds that it violates their personal code of ethics. I understand codes of ethics, and I understand how they can place limitations on what a person can do, but I also understand that if you have a limiting code of ethics, you should not pursue a career where you are going to come into ethical conflict with the requirements of your job. If you cannot bring yourself to dispense certain pharmaceuticals (and it need not just be contraception... anti-depressants and vaccines can be just as controversial among certain segments of the population), you shouldn't take a job as a pharmacist.

Deep down, though, I can't help thinking that there is more politics than ethics in the air. The pharmacists in question are supported in their lawsuit against Walgreens by Americans United for Life, a well-heeled advocacy group that champions anti-choice causes. This has all the aroma of a deliberate test case against the recent Illinois law that prevents them from opting out of dispensing contraceptives. If they win their case, I have to wonder about the long term ramifications. Could I then get a high-paying job at a major pharmaceutical company and conveniently 'opt out' of any research that involved animals?

Makes me wonder if I should be supporting them.