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Where to draw the line on religious freedom

EHC provision is a hot topic in light of a recent fitness-to-practise case. Lawyer David Reissner explores the human rights implications of the conscience clause and the GPhC's impending review

Are pharmacists entitled to refuse to supply emergency hormonal contraception (EHC) if this would be inconsistent with their religious beliefs? The NHS terms of service require pharmacy owners to supply with reasonable promptness any item on a prescription form.


The GPhC's standards of conduct, ethics and performance require pharmacists to make sure that if their religious or moral beliefs prevent them from providing a service, they tell the relevant people or authorities and refer patients and the public to other providers.


Pharmacists must, of course, always act in the best interests of their patients and the public. Last month, the GPhC delivered a three-year ban from providing EHC to former Boots pharmacist Piotr Mikolaj Majchrowicz, registration number 2069549, for delivering a "distressing" lecture on the ethics of the treatment to a patient, during which he told her it amounted to a chemical abortion.


However, some who believe that providing EHC contravenes the principles of their faith may also believe that it would be wrong to refer patients to other providers.

Some who believe that providing EHC contravenes the principles of their faith may also believe that it would be wrong to refer patients to other providers


English law is governed by the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporates the European Convention on Human Rights. Article 9 of the convention begins:

"Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes … freedom, … in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance."


The right to religious freedom is not unqualified. Article 9 goes on to say:

"Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others."


The GPhC has announced that it is reviewing its standards, including what pharmacy professionals must do if their religious or moral beliefs prevent them from providing a service. This is a brave step, because there are no simple answers. I am aware that some people hold the view that pharmacists should not enter the profession unless they are prepared to comply with all its rules and standards.


However, the GPhC implicitly accepts that religious beliefs may prevent a pharmacist from providing a service, and it seems unlikely that the GPhC would produce new standards that seek to compel pharmacists to provide EHC or to refer patients elsewhere.


The GPhC would be right to avoid compulsion: if there are other ways that EHC patients can receive treatment, it would be difficult to prove that insisting pharmacists act contrary to their beliefs was necessary for the protection of patients' rights and freedoms.


David Reissner is a solicitor and partner at Charles Russell LLP, where he is head of healthcare ([email protected])

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