Win for Christian pharmacists’ over conscience clampdown
Christian pharmacists win a reprieve from plans by their regulator which could have forced them to issue abortion drugs against their will.
In a significant climbdown, the General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) said today that it recognises and respects the “central” and “positive” role of religion in the lives of pharmacy professionals and agreed to protect the rights of pharmacists to refer clients to other professionals.
The GPhC has rewritten its proposals, which had threatened to force Christian pharmacists to issue drugs to terminate pregnancies. This move led to hundreds of objections from Christian professionals.
The u-turn comes after The Christian Institute threatened the GPhC with judicial review over its previous plans, which Institute lawyers said were unclear and a breach of human rights.
The new guidance expressly refers to the human rights of pharmacists and acknowledges religion or belief as an important factor to be taken into account in decision-making.
It also specifically allows for the idea of referral to another pharmacist where there is a conscience issue.
Solicitor Advocate Sam Webster, who heads up The Christian Institute’s Legal Defence Fund and led preparations for the legal challenge, said:
“This is a relief for pharmacists. It simply shows a bit of respect for people of faith and by doing so should more or less maintain the status quo in practice for pharmacists and their customers.
“We’re grateful to the GPhC for offering to meet with us earlier this year to discuss our concerns. However, we were fully prepared to litigate and made this clear in pre-action legal correspondence exchanged with the Council’s lawyers.
“We made extensive preparations, working closely with individual pharmacists. Many pharmacists made representations to the GPhC. They became concerned that their views were not being taken on board so we made clear we would be willing to help them take their case to court.
“We cited the ruling of the Supreme Court in our own successful case against the Scottish Government last year, arguing that the Council’s proposals were not sufficiently precise and not in accordance with the law.
“We reminded them of the obligations of human rights law, which protects the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
“There’s no doubt the new guidance reflects key points that we argued with the Council and we are pleased that they have taken those arguments on board.
“The guidance accompanies the recent change to the professional standards for pharmacists. The two were consulted on together. The change to the standards removed mention of pharmacists being able to refer people to other providers if their own values or beliefs prevent them from providing a particular service. Those revised standards require pharmacists not to compromise “person-centred” care and the draft accompanying guidance presented a minefield of factors which pharmacists had to navigate to ensure that outcome. No mention was made of any legal right of conscience or the possibility that pharmacists might be able to refer to other service providers as they had under the old rules.
“Our threat of judicial review was based on the lack of clarity in the proposed new rules, making them unclear and inaccessible. We cited the decision of the UK Supreme Court in Christian Institute v Lord Advocate (2016) as authority for why, in order to be human rights compliant, rules must be formulated with sufficient precision to enable individuals to know their rights and responsibilities. The proposals we threatened to judicially review left significant doubt that any right of conscience still existed.
“The final guidance shows a marked shift in tone and clear recognition that referral to another service provider is still an option, provided care is not compromised. The right to conscience recognised in the European Convention on Human Rights is explicitly mentioned.
“The new rules are certainly not perfect, but there is a rebalancing which takes on board the rights of pharmacists and the need to balance those with the rights of service users.”
Extracts from the guidance:
“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. It is important that pharmacy professionals take their own – and others – religion, personal values and beliefs into account when dealing with colleagues and people using pharmacy services, and understand how these have the potential to interact with and impact on the delivery of care.” (page 7)
“Pharmacy professionals have the right to practise 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.” (page 7)
“It is important that pharmacy professionals work in partnership with their employers and colleagues to consider how they can practise in line with their religion, personal values and beliefs without compromising care.” (page 7)
“If a pharmacy professional is unwilling to provide a certain service… We want to be clear that referral to another health professional may be an appropriate option, and this can include handover to another pharmacist at the same, or another, pharmacy or service provider. Pharmacy professionals should use their professional judgement to decide whether a referral is appropriate in each individual situation, and take responsibility for the outcome of the person’s care.” (pages 7 & 8)
“Also, employers have responsibilities towards pharmacy professionals and the wider pharmacy team. Everyone has the right to be treated with dignity and respect in the workplace, and employers should be sensitive to the religion, personal values and beliefs of pharmacy professionals, and create and maintain fair working environments. Employers must keep to the relevant employment, human rights and equalities law. They must not unlawfully discriminate against pharmacy professionals because of their stated or perceived religion, personal values or beliefs.” (page 11)
Click here to read the guidance in full on the General Pharmaceutical Council website.
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