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

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.

Many religious people, in particular Catholics, object to contraceptives such as the morning after pill.Reuters

The regulatory body that sets standards across British pharmacists said they wanted to ensure patient care is 'not compromised by religious belief'.

The changes prompted fears expressed in a consulation document that Christians could be forced into handing out suicide pills if euthanasia or assisted-dying was legalised. 

Despite 71 per cent of the public objecting to the change in the consultation, the Council confirmed the measures after a final consultation at a meeting on April 6.

Chief executive Duncan Rudkin said the shift of balance away from religious belief of the pharmacist onto the patient 'represents a significant change'.

He said: 'We understand the importance of a pharmacy professional's religion, personal values or beliefs, but we want to make sure people can access the advice, care and services they need from a pharmacy, when they need them.'

It means pharmacists who object to certain procedures such as the morning-after pill and other contraceptives may still refuse to hand them out but must make sure the patient sees someone else who is willing to provide the service.

CARE, a Christian public policy charity, said that despite the aim being person-centred care, the wishes of the public were being ignored in imposing this change.

Chief executive Nola Leach said: 'It is hard to see how ignoring the wishes of the public – ie those using pharmacy services and those in whose name this change has been advanced – is compatible with the person-centred care the GPhC claims to champion.

'It seems clear from the responses to the GPhC's consultation that the changes to the standards and guidance are not wanted by the public.'

In response a spokeswoman for the GPhc pointed out 70 per cent of pharmacy professionals agreed with the changes. Justifying the decision, a GPhCreport said the changes 'strike the right balance in protecting the religious freedom of pharmacy professionals and preventing discrimination against service users'.

Addressing the fears around euthanasia, the report said any change in the law was for parliament to decide.

But they added: 'Any significant change in the law, euthanasia or assisted suicide being examples, would necessitate an immediate review of our standards and guidance.'

The National Secular Society welcomed the move, which it called 'forward-thinking and robust'.

Dr Antony Lempert, the coordinator of the Secular Medical Forum,part of the NSS, said: 'It is clear that the professionalism of most pharmacists is paramount and that it is only a small cohort of very religious pharmacists who wish to impose their own views on patients and obstruct reasonable, legal care in the pharmacy setting.

'The onus is now on pharmacists to ensure that they don't put themselves in a position to obstruct patient care.'