Pharmacists could face the sack if they refuse to hand out morning-after pills under unprecedented new guidelines issued by their industry regulator.
Some chemists say the new guidance circulated last week by the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) effectively strips them of their right to conscientiously object to handling such drugs.
They say it will make them “morally complicit” because they will not only be obliged to refer a customer to a pharmacist who is willing to distribute the pills but must also ring ahead to check that the product is in stock. Many pharmacists have objections to dispensing morning-after pills, and some contraceptive pills, because they have an abortifacient action, working post-conception by preventing a fertilised ovum from implanting into the womb.
The guidance will also compel Christian pharmacists to make drugs available for IVF, to which many object because embryos are destroyed in the process. The Government revealed last month that 32 embryos are created for every live birth.
Furthermore, for the first time it informs pharmacists that their right to conscientious objection on religious grounds is secondary to the contractual demands of employers such as the NHS.
Pharmacists will also have a duty to inform a potential employer of any moral objections they have to the morning-after pill when they apply for a post.
Anna Sweeting-Hempsall, a Catholic hospital pharmacist, said the guidelines will lead to the dismissal of some Christians from the profession and prevent others from entering it. “Catholic pharmacists have the obligation to respect the fact that life is sacred from the moment of conception to natural death by not supplying, or participating in the supply of, drugs for abortion or euthanasia,” she said.
“Until now, the conscience clause gave Catholic pharmacists the right not to compromise their beliefs, and provided invaluable protection against unethical employers who might have tried to force pharmacists to act against their conscience and supply these drugs,” she said.
“But the new guidance makes it clear employers have the right to choose not to employ pharmacists with a conscientious objection, or to impose contractual obligations which take precedence over the rights of conscience. In other words, the conscience clause is now meaningless, and Catholic pharmacists who cannot accept being party to attacks on unborn life are virtually unemployable.
“Even if a pharmacist does manage to find a job under a sympathetic employer, the guidance states that the pharmacist must still ‘refer patients to alternative service providers’, which is still an unacceptable level of involvement for Catholics. Surely, if I am prepared to phone round other local pharmacies to find the one that is prepared to dispense a prescription for the morning-after pill, I may as well have supplied it myself,” she said.
The “Guidance on the Provision of Pharmacy Services Affected by Religious and Moral Beliefs” comes a year after a majority of members of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain voted to retain a conscience clause during a consultation by the GPhC. The regulator responded by producing the guidance to explain how such a right must now be interpreted.
All pharmacists are accountable to the GPhC and must be able to explain their actions in the context of any guidance issued. The GPhC said, however, that the guidance was not binding and was open to review after one year.
“Our guidance is advice for pharmacy professionals and explains how our standards might be met, or provide additional suggestions for practice,” a spokeswoman said. “The requirements of our guidance are not mandatory.”
But John Smeaton, the director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, urged pharmacists to reject the guidance. “It is a shocking direction and it has no validity whatsoever. People with a conscientious objection must refuse to obey it,” he said.
“What they are stipulating runs directly contrary to the fundamental right of conscientious objection, of having absolutely nothing to do with drugs which may kill an early developing human embryo. It is also contrary to the right to life of the human embryo.”
Neil Addison, the director of the Thomas More Legal Centre, said that the guidance was flawed. “What many people do not seem to grasp is the fact that if you are refusing to do something because it is morally objectionable you cannot be obliged to recommend someone else,” he said.
The revised code comes as the Government is placing pharmacists under increasing pressure to make the morning-after pill easily available to children to reduce Britain’s teenage pregnancy rate, the highest in Europe.
In a 2007 address to the International Congress of Catholic Pharmacists Pope Benedict XVI said concientious objection is a “right your profession must recognise”.
He said it permitted pharmacists “not to collaborate either directly or indirectly by supplying products for the purpose of decisions that are clearly immoral”.
The Church has traditionally taught that conscience is not a subjective judgment but an echo of the Natural Law, helping individuals to discern objective moral truth in concrete situations.
During his June visit to Croatia the Pope said: “If, in keeping with the prevailing modern idea, conscience is reduced to the subjective field to which religion and morality have been banished, then the crisis of the West has no remedy and Europe is destined to collapse in on itself.
“If on the other hand, conscience is rediscovered as the place in which to listen to truth and good, the place of responsibility before God and before fellow human beings – in other words the bulwark against all forms of tyranny – then there is hope for the future.”