Good news for freedom of conscience in the UK
In the Spring 2017 Triple Helix editorial 1 I reviewed the attempt by the pharmacists' regulator to force pharmacists to dispense drugs for what they consider to be unethical practices - such as emergency contraception, gender reassignment, abortion and assisted suicide.
In December 2016 the pharmacy regulator,the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC), issued new draft standards and guidance 2 that changed the emphasis from a 'right to refer' to a 'duty to dispense', admitting that this represented 'a significant change'.
During a consultation on this draft guidance, CMF and others had meetings with the GPhC and expressed concern about the limiting effect of this new wording on conscience rights. We argued that the draft proposal to remove pharmacists' conscience rights was 'disproportionate, unethical, unnecessary and quite possibly illegal'. We were concerned that this move could also have repercussions for freedom of conscience for doctors and nurses in the longer term.
So, as Philippa Taylor notes in a detailed review on the CMF Blog, 3 we were relieved to see the final guidance issued on 22 June 2017: In practice: Guidance on religion, personal values and beliefs
The standards for pharmacy professionals require that they must ensure that 'person-centred care' is not 'compromised because of personal values and beliefs'. But the guidance now makes it clear that: 'Pharmacy professionals have the right to practise in line with their religion, personal values or beliefs' (p7) and clarifies that under Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) a pharmacist's right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion is protected.
Crucially, there is now clear recognition that referral to another service provider is still 'an appropriate option' with an emphasis on the importance of openness and sensitive communication with colleagues and employers.
Encouragingly, in a statement accompanying the publication of the new guidance, the Chief Executive of the GPhC, Duncan Rudkin, highlighted the positive contribution pharmacists' faith can make in their position of care: 'We recognise and respect that a pharmacy professional's religion, personal values and beliefs are often central to their lives and can make a positive contribution to their providing safe and effective care to a diverse population.' 5
Why did they revise it? It appears that they took note of CMF's submission and those of others. But a strong letter from the Christian Institute warning that the draft guidance was in breach of the law and that a judicial review was imminent no doubt also helped. It's a reminder that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
Review by Peter Saunders CMF Chief Executive
1. Saunders P. Pharmacists' regulator's proposal to remove conscience rights. Triple Helix 2017; Spring:3 bit.ly/2slmjHk
2. GPhC. Consultation on religion, personal values and beliefs in pharmacy practice. GPhC; 2016 bit.ly/2nEb0n8
3. Taylor P. Good news for freedom of conscience in the UK. CMF Blogs 26 June 2017 bit.ly/2rT1P4B
4. GPhC. In practice: Guidance on religion, personal values and beliefs. GPhC; 2017 bit.ly/2sZdmmQ
5. GPhC. GPhC Council approves guidance on religion, personal values and beliefs. GPhC; 2017 bit.ly/2rUEqUC
Article written by Peter Saunders