Bedrock values?

Project letter to The Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal

Sean Murphy*

Polly Thompson asserts that religious tolerance is “a bedrock value of our democracy, and it goes both ways,” but then claims that “the onus is on the health professional to respect the religious beliefs of the patient, not the other way around,” a most peculiar form of tolerant reciprocity. The balance of the editorial demonstrates a troubling ignorance of the legal requirements to accommodate conscientious objectors[1] and de facto contempt of the “bedrock value” she purports to respect in theory. (The Public Trust and Access to Medication, Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal, October, 2004, Vol. 137, No. 8).

Patients and pharmacists have equal claims to freedom of conscience and expression, but one looks in vain in the editorial for a thoughtful analysis of how to deal fairly with conflicts of conscience in health care. A principled approach to conscientious objection would, among other things, distinguish between life-threatening injuries or conditions, and non-emergent situations. To equate the provision of blood transfusions for accident victims with dispensing contraceptives or post-coital interceptives suggests a disappointing editorial interest in polemics, not principle.

Thompson is mistaken when she claims that some pharmacists raise religious objections to her access to medication. Their concerns are not with her access, but with their own moral culpability should they facilitate harmful conduct or other wrongdoing by someone else.

The fact that a drug is legal does not determine this issue. By way of comparison, mouthwash is a legal product commonly sold in pharmacies. It can also be an intoxicant when consumed as a beverage. A conscientious pharmacist might well refuse to sell mouthwash to an alcoholic known to consume it for that purpose, whether or not the product could be accessed elsewhere.

Similarly, the practice of law is a self-regulated profession, and, like pharmacists, lawyers are expected to serve the interests of their clients. But a client cannot force a lawyer to facilitate what the lawyer considers to be a wrongful act – even if the act is legal.

Ms. Thompson’s fierce determination to adhere to her own moral views is not surprising, but she has failed to demonstrate that her morality is so superior that it should be imposed upon those who disagree with her. Indeed, she did not even attempt such a demonstration before calling for the elimination of “troubling holes” and “wiggle room” that make grudging allowance for freedom of conscience in pharmacy. Her message to those unwilling to go along with her is uncompromising; get out of the profession. Given this totalitarian mindset, Ms. Thompson’s complaint that ‘fundamentalist extremists’ dictate policy in the United States invites the waggish response that in Canada they write editorials for professional journals.

Pharmacy regulatory authorities can, with some imagination and good will, find ways to ensure “timely access to legal medication” without suppressing of freedom of conscience in the profession. The Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal can contribute to this kind of fruitful accommodation. But the profession and the public are not well served by the kind of incoherence, intolerance, polemics and ignorance of human rights jurisprudence displayed in its October editorial.

Sean Murphy, Administrator
Protection of Conscience Project


1. Benson I. “Autonomy”, “Justice” and the Legal Requirement to Accommodate the Conscience and Religious Beliefs of Professionals in Health Care [Internet]. Powell River (BC): Protection of Conscience Project; 2001 Mar. The Canadian Pharmaceutical Journal declined to publish the essay, which was a response to an article by Frank Archer that had appeared in an earlier number of the Journal. See also Murphy S. In Defence of the New Heretics: A Response to Frank Archer [Internet]. Powell River (BC): Protection of Conscience Project; 2000 Jul – also declined by the CPJ.