Defending freedom of conscience on emergency contraception

CMF Blogs
Reproduced with permission

Philippa Taylor*

The UK’s biggest abortion provider, British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), has attacked pharmacists who do not sell the ‘morning-after pill’ for conscience reasons. 

After one incident when a pharmacist would not dispense emergency contraception to a woman for ‘personal’ reasons, BPAS condemned both the pharmacist and the conscience protections provided to pharmacists. A petition was set up to prevent pharmacists from claiming freedom of conscience rights. 

Under the current law, covered by guidance from the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), pharmacists with a genuine conscientious objection to selling the pill may refer the customer to another pharmacist.

However, BPAS complained that it is ‘impossible to overstate the significance of even one pharmacist conscientiously objecting to selling the morning-after pill’. 

Fortunately, the General Pharmaceutical Council, in this case, upheld its guidelines and the consequent media coverage has now died down, temporarily at least.

This may seem like a one-off minor incident, but it is an illustration of increasing pressures on freedom of conscience protections. It is often assumed that the role of the conscience in medicine is relevant only to a few specialised and limited areas such as contraception or abortion, but in fact, the concept of the conscience goes right to the heart of what it means to act in a moral way, to act with integrity.

If we do not stand by those who are under pressure, the problems will only get worse and will spread. A well-known quote, often attibuted to Burke though it may have come originally from J S Mill, warns: ‘He should not be lulled to repose by the delusion that he does no harm who takes no part in public affairs. He should know that bad men need no better opportunity than when good men look on and do nothing.’

The Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) has therefore written to the General Pharmaceutical Council to ensure they are aware of our concerns and to thank them for holding to their guidance. The text of our letter is as follows, with their response after it:

‘I am writing to you following the recent news coverage of a Lloyds pharmacy worker who, according to news reports, conscientiously objected to selling the morning-after pill and directed a customer to another pharmacy instead. I note that a petition has since been set up to prevent pharmacists from claiming conscientious objection rights.

‘The Christian Medical Fellowship is the UK’s largest faith-based group of health professionals and we contributed with both written and oral evidence to your review of your Guidance on Religion, Personal Values and Beliefs. We publicly welcomed the new Guidance and the statement accompanying it, in which the Chief Executive of the General Pharmaceutical Council highlighted the positive contribution that pharmacists’ faith can make in their provision of care. We also welcomed the clear statement that: “Pharmacy professionals have the right to practise in line with their religion, personal values or beliefs”.

‘We all aspire to person-centred care. In any care scenario, there are (at least) two parties – the carer and the one receiving care – each of whom has rights. The General Pharmaceutical Council guidance helpfully achieves a balance between the patient’s right to service access and the pharmacist’s right to freedom of conscience.

Respect for the sincerely held religious and moral beliefs of employees is essential and we are concerned that some of the demands being made, based on this one recent case, would marginalise the beliefs, values and religion of pharmacists disproportionately and unnecessarily, and trivialise their right to freedom of conscience under the law. Despite widespread coverage of this case, we have yet to see evidence of recurring complaints under the present provisions.

‘While we strongly support the right to freedom of conscience for pharmacists, we do also emphasise the importance of openness and sensitive communication with colleagues and employers; any refusal to supply should be made courteously and sensitively.

‘On behalf of CMF, I want to thank the Council for protecting the right of pharmacists to refuse to engage in certain procedures that violate their most profound moral convictions.

‘I also encourage the Council to continue to make it clear, publicly, that all pharmacy professionals have the right to practise in line with their religion, personal values or beliefs.

Yours faithfully

Dr Mark Pickering
Chief Executive, CMF

The General Pharmaceutical Council replied with the following two sentences:

‘Our existing guidance In practice: Guidance on religion, personal values and beliefs (to which you refer) remains in place. We have no current plans to review it. As you are aware, the guidance sits under our standards for pharmacy professionals and relates to standard 1, Pharmacy professionals must provide person-centred care.’

The point here is simple but vital: if we care about liberty and personal integrity, we must make a reasoned defence of it in the public square, from the smallest incident to the biggest.

Victory For Christian Pharmacists’ Conscience Rights In Great Britain

Cross Rhythms

Heather Bellamy

Heather Bellamy spoke with Ciaran Kelly, the Head of Communications at the Christian Institute, about the importance of reasonable accommodation in balancing people’s rights, and how after consultation, the General Pharmaceutical Council have chosen to continue to value their pharmacists faith and conscience, as well as patient care.

For the past few months, Christian pharmacists in Great Britain anticipated having to choose between their faith and their job, but after a huge campaign and the threat of legal action from the Christian Institute, their regulatory body has backed away from ending conscience rights. Heather Bellamy spoke with Ciaran Kelly, the Head of Communications, at the Christian Institute, to find out more. . . [Full text]

 

To dispense or not to dispense…

Eastern Daily Press

Nick Conrad

I was drawn to a news story which snuck under the radar this week. This issue is a classic ‘contract’ versus ‘conscience’ battle facing some pharmacists, which was brilliantly highlighted on the BBC Radio Norfolk Sunday Breakfast programme.

I pen this week’s article with genuine interest, a will to impartially provoke a healthy debate rather than trying to influence opinion. In a U-turn on proposed policy, Britain’s pharmacy regulator has declared that pharmacists should not be forced to dispense medicine and substances against their consciences. This includes drugs such as the morning-after pill or even contraceptives. The pharmacist can object if it goes against their religious beliefs, forcing the customer to go elsewhere. . . [Full text]

 

GPhC improves guidance on Pharmacists’ conscience rights

Christian Concern

Christian Concern reported earlier this year that the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) had amended its guidance to remove any protection for pharmacists and their legal right to freedom of conscience.

Christian Concern provided submissions to the GPhC stating very clearly that not only did pharmacists enjoy a legal right to freedom of conscience, but also that the public had a right to receive services from pharmacists who share their set of values. . . [Full text]

 

U.K. pharmacy regulator abandons proposal to strip conscience protections

CatholicPhilly/Catholic News Service

Simon Caldwell

MANCHESTER, England (CNS) — In a U-turn of proposed policy, Britain’s pharmacy regulator has declared that Catholic pharmacists should not be forced to dispense lethal drugs against their consciences.

The General Pharmaceutical Council, the regulatory body that sets professional standards for the industry throughout the country, has backed away from controversial proposals to abolish the right of people with religious convictions to conscientiously object to dispensing the morning-after pill, contraceptives and hormone-blocking drugs used by transsexual patients.

In new guidance issued June 22, it says: “Professionals have the right to practice in line with their religion, personal values or beliefs as long as they act in accordance with equalities and human rights law and make sure that person-centered care is not compromised.” . . . [Full text]

 

Conscience win for Christian pharmacists

The Christian Institute

Christian pharmacists will remain free to do their jobs in line with their consciences after regulators published new guidance recognising the “positive” role of religion.

Earlier draft guidance by the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) could have forced Christians to provide access to abortifacient or hormone-blocking drugs.

The guidance now states: “Pharmacy professionals have the right to practise in line with their religion, personal values or beliefs”. The changes were made after The Christian Institute threatened the GPhC with legal action and hundreds of Christian professionals raised objections. . . [Full text]

 

How GPhC’s religious standards compare with doctors

Lawyer Noel Wardle explains the impact and context of the controversial standards for pharmacists

C+D

Annabelle Collins

All pharmacists will be aware of standard 3.4 in the General Pharmaceutical Council’s (GPhC) previous standards of conduct, ethics and performance – often referred to as the “conscience clause”. This clause gave pharmacists an opt-out for providing services and medicines that are contrary to their “religious and moral beliefs”.

However, the regulator adopted new standards in May – called the ‘standards for pharmacy professionals’ – and pharmacists and employers alike need to think about the implications. . . [Full text]

 

Pro-life medics being forced to choose between career or conscience

Christian Institute

Pro-life medics in the US are ‘under attack’, an academic has warned.

Author and bioethicist, Wesley J. Smith, said medics who are morally opposed to abortion and assisted suicide may soon be forced to choose between “their careers and their convictions”.

He made the comments in an article for First Things, an influential journal of religion and public life.

‘Morally opposed’

In support of his case, he highlighted work published in the New England Journal of Medicine which described abortion as “a standard obstetrical practice” and “not medically controversial”.

Smith said: “The authors take an absolutist position, claiming that personal morality has no place in medical practice.”

He went on to highlight several examples where doctors are being forced to refer patients for abortion and assisted suicide “even if they are morally opposed”. . . . [Full text]

 

Will removing a ‘conscience clause’ force Christian pharmacists to dispense morning-after pills?

Christian Today

Harry Farley

Pharmacy regulators have removed a ‘conscience clause’ from their standards code meaning Christians and other religious people could be forced to ensure that contraceptives and other medicines are handed out against their beliefs.

The General Pharmaceutical Council (GphC) said allowing personal religious beliefs and values to dictate dispensing practice was ‘not compatible’ with a ‘person-centred care’ they wanted to offer.

The regulatory body that sets standards across British pharmacists said they wanted to ensure patient care is ‘not compromised by religious belief’. . . [Full text]

 

Conscientious objection in the pharmacy

Religious guidance may put UK pharmacists at risk of punishment, says C + D author… but what about Aussie pharmacists?

AJP.com

Seshtyn Paola

According to the UK publication Chemist + Druggist, in 2013 the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) banned a pharmacist from providing emergency hormonal contraception (EHC) for three years because he had given a patient “a distressing explanation of why his religion regarded EHC as morally wrong”.

Now the Council is bringing in new standards – due to come into effect on May 1 – proposing that pharmacy professionals should not be able to refuse services based on their religion, personal values or beliefs.

The GPhC also suggests that referral to another pharmacist should not be an option, reports C + D. . . [Full text]