Britain's pharmacy regulator declared June 22 that Catholic pharmacists should not be forced to dispense lethal drugs against their consciences. Photo courtesy of Rusty Frank, Wikimedia Commons

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

By  Simon Caldwell, Catholic News Service
  • June 26, 2017

MANCHESTER, England – 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-centred care is not compromised."

"It is important that pharmacy professionals work in partnership with their employers and colleagues to consider how they can practice in line with their religion, personal values and beliefs without compromising care," the guidance said.

"This includes thinking in advance about the areas of their practice which may be affected and making the necessary arrangements, so they do not find themselves in the position where a person's care could be compromised," it continued. "Pharmacy professionals should keep in mind the difference between religion, personal values or beliefs, and a professional clinical judgement."

The initial proposals, published by the council in December, sought to "shift the balance" away from the rights of pharmacists to work according to their consciences to "the needs and rights of the person in their care."

The plans were criticized by the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales and the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, a Catholic institute serving the Catholic Church in the U.K. and Ireland as a threat to the religious freedom of the pharmacists.

Anscombe warned the council that Christians would be effectively prohibited from practicing in the pharmacy profession.

Helen Watt, senior research fellow for Anscombe, welcomed the new guidance, but said that it still went too far in trying to compel pharmacists to act against their consciences.

"It is good to see some mention of employment rights and the positive role of 'religion, personal values and beliefs' in serving a diverse population," she said in a June 23 email to Catholic News Service.

"However, the guidance is still very worrying in the extent to which it expects pharmacists to act against their values and beliefs and their own professional ethic," she said.

"That includes situations where the pharmacist objects to a 'service' which far from being health care is positively harmful to health," she said, adding: "The suggestion is still that the pharmacist should either refer for or sometimes even provide the very 'service' to which he or she objects."

The Christian Institute, an ecumenical group, said in a June 22 press release that the council recognized a pharmacist's right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion was protected by Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The group had threatened to mount a legal challenge against the council if it scrapped conscience protections.

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