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Conscience clause concern

ASPECTS of professional ethics have always been troublesome

By The Journal

Aspects of professional ethics have always been troublesome. This week, Joy Wingfield, an eminent pharmacy ethicist, suggests that the General Pharmaceutical Council, as it reviews its “Standards for conduct, ethics and performance”, may find particularly troublesome revision of the conscience clause inherited from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain’s pre-separation, 2007 Code of Ethics.The conscience clause allows pharmacists who have strong religious or moral beliefs to refuse to provide treatments or procedures with which they disagree.

However, such pharmacists are meant to signpost patients to other pharmacists who do not hold such convictions. What is the ethical difference between providing a service and, in effect, procuring it? Is this the pragmatic compromise that Professor Wingfield describes?

One area where conscience clause application could cause difficulties is employment. What happens if it turns out an employee pharmacist does not share the convictions and beliefs of his or her employer? Could such a scenario be grounds for dimissal, especially if it came to light only after employment had been taken up? Might there be a case for officially disclosing one’s ethical beliefs before accepting offers of employment so that accommodations might be made? Or could that fall foul of antidiscrimination law?

The views of the public may be instructive. Take this comment from the US?website “Feminists for choice”. We have paraphrased it, but it remains uncompromising: “If you own the pharmacy, you should be able to do what you please. If you don’t want to dispense birth control or emergency contraception, then fine, don’t. However, if you work for me at my pharmacy and refuse to dispense it, I should be able to fire you. If you’re vegetarian, you can open a vegetarian restaurant. You can’t take a job at my steakhouse and then refuse to serve steak based on an ethical problem with meat. If you don’t like it, get out of the business entirely.”

Clearly, since pharmacists’ professionalism means they are meant to serve the public interest and not necessarily their own, the GPhC will have its work cut out.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2013.11120445

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