When rights collide

© Copyright 2004 Calgary Herald
Reproduced with permission

Nigel Hannaford

A few years ago, a customer asked Co-op pharmacist Maria Bizecki to fill a prescription for an abortion drug. For Bizecki, a Roman Catholic and active pro-lifer, this was akin to being invited to become an accessory to murder. She declined.

It was a risky stand against the prevailing view of pharmaceutical professional associations, and employers retailing drugs. Yet, ultimately it led to a small step forward for Albertans’ religious freedom.

The Alberta College of Pharmacists (ACP), for instance, her profession’s ethics watchdog, emphasizes a client’s right to have pharmaceutical needs met. It grants conscience leeway to its members, though this did not save Bizecki from facing complaints about her stand.

More particularly, the conscience clause is little help to pharmacists dealing with unsympathetic employers.

The letter one Pro-Life Ontario pharmacist got from his boss (quoted in the Pro-Life paper, Interim) eloquently expresses the all-business perspective: “You are not employed by the company to make moral or philosophical decisions about whether birth control is appropriate for the customer . . . we are engaged in a retail activity.”

The letter concluded with a threat of termination, noting that if the pharmacist couldn’t separate his beliefs from his job, he should “think long and hard about whether you could continue in your capacity.”

Co-op was comparatively gentle. Bizecki had been straightforward with them about her views, and was known in the community as a pro-life activist. She was suspended with pay.

She doesn’t talk about the complaints which led to her being investigated by the ACP; the details are subject to her duty of confidentiality. Still, when in 2000, a pro-choice website challenged the conscience rights of pharmacists, the prompt arrival of the first complaint was no surprise.

The situation was a pickle of contending rights and obligations.

Obviously, if a prescribed drug is legal, a client has a right to buy it, and a druggist to sell it. But, only the wilfully blind wouldn’t admit honest people can sincerely disagree over abortion. As employees are not mere instruments of an employer’s will, but have a right of conscience, even an obligation, how does one loosen the tangle?

One way is to choose. When human rights commissions do so, religious freedoms sometimes lose. The case of a Catholic school board
compelled to allow a gay student to bring his boyfriend to a prom, is illustrative.

The other way is negotiation. It took nearly three years for Bizecki’s lawyer, Gerry Chipeur, the college and Co-op to work it out, but there was a happy ending. That is, something which worked for everybody, and it serves as a useful template.

The reasonable accommodation of Bizecki’s principles was a written agreement in which she recognized the public’s right to have a prescription filled by a pharmacist, and that she could not and should not obstruct it. But, employers have a duty to reasonably accommodate employee scruples, and Co-op agreed not to demand she fill prescriptions for drugs which effect abortions. Thus, with the college’s blessing, she would always be part of a two-person dispensary.

Chipeur adds this might not be a reasonable accommodation for a one- person pharmacy: “However, in Canada employers have always had a duty to be reasonable, so long as there’s no undue burden. This is the first time that I’m aware, that there has been such an accommodation. If there’s a similar breakdown in Alberta in the future, it would be unwise for any health employer to not accommodate a pro-life position. I’d just say this to pro-lifers: Don’t take a job in an abortion clinic and then say you don’t want to do abortions.”

What distinguishes this case from some of the head-on rights collisions we’ve seen in Canada, is that the parties would accept a solution, not hold out for a victory. Canada aspires to be a tolerant country.

This is what tolerance looks like.

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