Manchester, England — The Catholic Church has predicted that British pharmacists could be forced to dispense lethal drugs under plans to prohibit conscientious objection on the grounds of religion.
Proposals by the General Pharmaceutical Council, the regulatory body that sets professional standards for the industry throughout Britain, were criticized by the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales and the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, a Catholic institute serving the Catholic Church in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
The pharmaceutical council announced in December that it wished to change "the expectations of pharmacy professionals when their religion, personal values or beliefs might ... impact on their ability to provide services, and shift the balance in favor of the needs and rights of the person in their care."
It intends to order pharmacists to "take responsibility for ensuring that person-centered care is not compromised because of personal values and beliefs."
"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," said Duncan Rudkin, chief executive of the General Pharmaceutical Council. "We recognize that this represents a significant change."
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Interested parties were given until March 7 to express their views on the proposed changes.
In an undated submission, Anscombe director David Jones suggested that the changes would force pharmacists to dispense the morning-after pill, which in some cases acts by preventing a fertilized ovum from implanting into the uterus.
"In relation to termination of pregnancy, most abortions are now medical rather than surgical, and the drugs which cause an abortion are dispensed by pharmacists," Jones said in a paper posted on the Anscombe website.
He also warned the regulator that if assisted suicide laws were changed in the United Kingdom to permit the practice, then pharmacists would have no right to object to dispensing lethal drugs to customers who wished to kill themselves.
"In the future, requests could even include requests to dispense drugs for assisted suicide: requests with which many pharmacists will rightly be reluctant to comply," Jones said. "Having conceded so much in terms of the wishes of the person using the pharmacy, the council may find it difficult to retrace its steps and re-establish professional control centered on the person's genuine health interests."
The proposals, he continued, risked "eviscerating the profession of concern for the genuine health interests of people using the pharmacy."
A change could also "create an atmosphere that is hostile to religious people in particular," Jones added.
Auxiliary Bishop Paul Mason of Southwark, responding March 7 on behalf of the English and Welsh bishops, told the pharmaceutical council that its proposal "seems to imply that conscientious objection, whether motivated by religious or other concerns, is an obstacle to ensuring patient-centered care."
"It appears to suggest that having a moral conscience and patient-centered care are not compatible facets of a pharmacist's profession," he said in an excerpt emailed to Catholic News Service March 7. "However, we contend that being a person of conscience is, in fact, a requirement of any health care professional."
Rosemary Baker, a retired Catholic pharmacist from Wirral, England, told CNS in a March 7 email that during her career, she had occasionally refused to dispense the morning-after pill, but had always explained her reasons with "understanding and respect."
"Such a refusal under the proposed standard would be very likely to be considered as a breach of the patient's rights to care and place the pharmacist in breach of the professional standards," said Baker, a former lecturer in pharmacy law and health care ethics at Liverpool John Moores University.