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Code of ethics change worrisome to pro-life British pharmacists

LONDON (BP)–British pharmacists who refuse to dispense medication such as the morning-after pill fear they may face discrimination or even become unemployable as a result of a decision by the profession’s national body to amend its code of ethics, CNSNews.com reported May 22.

Pharmacists with ethical, religious or other objections to providing such “services” will have to tell prospective employers beforehand that they hold these views, a concerned pharmacist noted.

Since the beginning of 2001, the British government has permitted women ages 16 and up to buy the drug Levonelle from pharmacists without going through their physician. The move is aimed in part at reducing Britain’s teenage pregnancy rate, the highest in Western Europe.

Pro-lifers oppose the pill on the grounds its use can amount to an early abortion by preventing an already fertilized egg from implanting in the lining of the uterus.

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society at its annual general meeting during the week of May 14 amended its code of ethics, dropping wording that said pharmacists could “object on grounds of conscience to the dispensing of certain medicinal products for the control of fertility, conception or termination of pregnancy.”

The new clause says that pharmacists must, before accepting employment, “disclose any factors which may affect their ability to provide services.” Both the original and revised versions said pharmacists who object to providing certain products should not condemn the patient, who should also be advised of an alternative source of supply.

“It blew us out of the water,” Caroline Hubert, a pharmacist on England’s south coast, said May 22.

Hubert, whose primary objection to the morning-after pill is that it is “life-threatening” to an early stage human being, said two earlier drafts containing proposed revisions to the code and circulated for consultation had not included the offending sentence.

She had read out an objection to its insertion at the AGM, and proposed that the sentence be changed to:

“Pharmacists … must ensure that where pharmacists’ religious beliefs or personal convictions prevent them from providing medicines which control fertility, conception or termination of pregnancy they do not criticize the patient and they or a member of staff must advise the patient of alternative sources for the service requested.”

But although it received more backing than she had expected from other members, the amendment was defeated, Hubert said — “possibly because the whole of the ethics committee and council of the society were there and were obviously in agreement with the revised statement.”

Where pro-life pharmacists were protected in the past, they now faced “a whip,” Hubert said.

“It says pharmacists must advise future employers of any services they may not be prepared to supply. What does that say — if you think someone’s refusal is going to upset a patient and that they won’t come back?”

Hubert said that in her own experience she has been “moving according to conscience” for the past five years, and had not found that her stance had caused problems.

“People are handling the situation with discretion and confidentiality, in the appropriate manner; we won’t alienate people.”

Nonetheless, prospective employers, she said, will automatically feel that applicants who hold these views should be “the last people to take on.”

With the RU 486 “abortion pill” and legalized euthanasia on the horizon, it had been hoped the society’s revised code of ethics would have “accommodated the increasing number of pharmacists who will need to employ the conscience clause in the future rather than discriminating against them.”

Hubert expressed the hope that the question of the morning-after pill may be a catalyst in the formation of a pro-life body for pharmacists in Britain. She is herself a member of the U.S.-based Pharmacists for Life International.

The pro-life organization Life said May 22 it had received a number of letters from pharmacists in recent months, expressing concern about the change in the law. In one area, a group of 10 Muslim pharmacists had asked Life for material to use in their stores, including display placards saying, “We do not supply the morning-after pill.”

The dropping of the conscience clause, a Life representative said, would affect both employees in large pharmacy chains, as well as the owners of the dwindling number of privately owned stores.

Life spokesperson Rachel Heath said in a statement the society’s decision constituted “the grossest form of discrimination against pro-lifers that any professional body in this country has yet devised.”

Attempts to get comment from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society were unsuccessful May 22.
Goodenough is the London bureau chief with CNSNews.com. Used by permission.

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