In the True North Strong and Free

Project Letter to the Calgary Herald

Sean Murphy*

Twelve years ago, an editorial in the Calgary Herald1 expressed hope that a bill proposed by MLA Julius Yankowsky2 would ensure that health care professionals would not be forced to participate in procedures or services to which they objected for reasons of conscience.

The editorial cited the example of coerced participation of nurses in late term abortions at Foothills Hospital3 and the case of Maria Bizecki, a pharmacist facing discipline for refusing to dispense the morning after pill.4 The bill, said the editorial, was “a common sense compromise” that would respect freedom of conscience without preventing access to abortion or drugs. Yankowsky’s bill did not pass, but a common sense compromise was eventually worked out between Ms. Bizecki and her employer, the Calgary Cooperative Association.5

While Ms. Bizecki’s case was grinding slowly forward, she and Professor Donald De Marco met the Herald editorial board. Danielle Smith, then a member of the board, was at the meeting. So was Herald columnist Naomi Lakritz, who, at one point, personally congratulated Ms. Bizecki for her stand.6

Danielle Smith, now leader of the Wildrose Party, appears to be advocating the kind of compromise supported by the Herald when it expressed support for freedom of conscience for health care professionals. Ms. Lakritz, however, seems to have changed her mind.

“The word ‘conscience,’” she writes, “is now being used to advocate doing the wrong thing” – like refusing to dispense the morning after pill. (“Conscience rights is another way of allowing discrimination.”Calgary Herald, 10 April, 2012)

Ms. Lakritz is not alone in this belief. She reports that Alison Redford, the Premier of the province, is actually frightened by suggestions that at least some people in Alberta might refuse to do what they believe to be wrong. We are told that Liberal and NDP leaders also oppose freedom of conscience, and that the Alberta Party leader condemns protection of conscience legislation as “an exercise in exclusion,” a point apparently overlooked by those who drafted Section 2(a) of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

According to Ms. Lakritz, the Premier believes that suppression of freedom of conscience demonstrates respect for diversity, that people are treated with “dignity and respect” when they are forced to do what they believe to be wrong, and that threatening conscientious objectors with dismissal makes people feel “safe and included.”

We are not told if the Premier and other leaders opposed to freedom of conscience insist that their candidates sacrifice their personal integrity in order to run for office. Nor does Ms. Lakritz tell us if employees at the Calgary Herald must do what they believe to be wrong as a condition of employment or promotion.

She does, however, claim that those who, for reasons of conscience, refuse to provide a legal drug or service act wrongly and dishonourably because they thus treat some people “as though they were much less equal to others.” This is like saying that refusing to sell tobacco is wrong because it treats smokers “as though they were much less equal” to non-smokers, or that refusing to facilitate prostitution is dishonourable because it denies equality to ‘sex trade workers.’ Even if one accepts such a peculiar notion of equality, however, equality is not the only principle relevant to the moral evaluation of an act. Moreover, the mere legality of a product or service imposes no duty to provide it or to affirm its moral acceptability. Ms. Lakritz made this clear when she excoriated Henry Morgentaler and abortion rights groups for suggesting that Catholic bishops should ask people to stop protesting abortions – a legal, tax-paid service.

“[The bishops] are not exactly known for indulging in moral relativism,” she observed.

“What this society needs is more people like them who take a firm stand on issues and do not apologize for refusing to be swayed by whatever current compromise passes for morality.”7

It is a pity that Ms. Lakritz no longer believes this: that she now holds that such people are “truly disgusting,” and that personal integrity and courage are grounds for dismissal in the true north strong and free.

O, Canada.


1.  “Editorial, The Calgary Herald, April 11, 2000. (Accessed 2012-04-11)

2. Bill 212, Human Rights, Citizenship and Multiculturalism Amendment Act, 2000.

3. Ko, Marnie, “Personal Qualms Don’t Count: Foothills Hospital Now Forces Nurses To Participate In Genetic Terminations.” Alberta Report Newsmagazine, April 12, 1999

4. Mastromatteo, Mike, “Alberta Pharmacist Vindicated for Pro-Life Stand.” The BC Catholic, 3 November, 2003

5. Gerald D. Chipeur to the Calgary Co-operative Association Re: Maria Bizecki, 19 December, 2001

6. E-mails from Maria Bizecki to the Administrator, Protection of Conscience Project, 10 and April, 2012.

7.  Lakritz, Naomi, “Hypocrite Henry: Morgentaler exercises his own brand of violence.” Winnipeg Sun, 17 January, 1995 (Accessed 2012-04-13)

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.

Related Links:

Alberta pharmacist vindicated for pro-Life stand

Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Mike Mastromatteo

A Calgary pharmacist has reached an agreement with her employer and the Alberta College of Pharmacists that will allow her to refrain from providing customers with prescriptions designed to terminate unborn human life.

Maria Bizecki of the Co-op Pharmacy in Calgary became the subject of an internal review by the Alberta College of Pharmacists last year after she refused to dispense the so-called “morning-after” pill and other products to which she is morally opposed.[Full text]

Concerned Pharmacists for Conscience supports Manitoba Pharmaceutical Association

News Release

Concerned Pharmacists for Conscience

The professional group Concerned Pharmacists for Conscience supports and applauds the Manitoba Pharmaceutical Association’s courageous inclusion of a model statement in their Standards of Practice, which does not require pharmacists with conscientious objections to refer patients. Patient access to legally prescribed therapy would continue to be available without compromising the health professionals’ right of conscientious refusal.

Ms. Maria Bizecki, spokesperson for Concerned Pharmacists for Conscience, says “Pharmacists  in Manitoba can now exercise their freedom of conscience rights without fear for their noble livelihood. Pharmacists are presently objecting to participate as agents of death, not attempting to block access or give moral pep talks at the pharmacy counter.”

Bizecki futher added that as the Canadian Medical Association does not require doctors to participate in or refer for abortions, all pharmacists must also be protected     nationally by their associations. “By pushing their morality on health care workers, the public violates a pharmacist’s autonomy, integrity and basic human rights in  a country that protects its minorities.”

For further information: Ms. Maria Bizecki, spokesperson Tel: (403) 228-2190  Fax:(403) 228-2249


Letter to the editor, Globe and Mail

Reproduced with permission

Re: April 27, 2000: Don’t let drugstores become pulpits

An “inability to distinguish between emergency contraception and the abortion pill”, and “irresponsible and blatantly uninformed” actually describes Planned Parenthood, not educated pharmacists. Planned Parenthood eagerly wants women to ingest dangerous hormones, which in the case of the morning after pill, fails at least 25% of the time. Planned Parenthood, not pharmacists, makes the choice for women by withholding facts and “spreading misinformation” in the name of sexual freedom.

Let every woman exercise her right to make an informed decision: the scientific literature is clear and abundant that the morning after pill (post-coital interception) acts primarily to prevent implantation, not ovulation. Therefore, to call it a contraceptive is false and misleading. To argue that pregnancy is not already established is a minority viewpoint ignoring virtually all embryology, biology and genetics texts.

Dr. Albert Yuzpe invented the morning after pill, yet does not mention ovulation prevention in his Contemporary Obstetrics and Gynecology article in 1994. He does mention, however, structural changes in the endometrium might “represent a hostile or non-receptive site for implantation”.

Futhermore, Jennifer Kessell, spokewoman for the company making Preven, confirmed that “more often it would prevent implantation” (The Report, Dec 6, 1999).

Pharmacists are objecting to participate, not attempting to block patient access to products. Doctors cannot be forced to perform procedures that violate their consciences, why should pharmacists? By pushing their morality on health care workers, the public violates a pharmacist’s autonomy, integrity, and basic human rights in a country that protects its minorities

Maria Bizecki
Concerned Pharmacists for Conscience