Page last updated at 09:04 GMT, Thursday, 25 March 2010

New pharmacy code continues opt-outs over beliefs

Customers could be told of alternative shops under the new plans

Pharmacists across the UK have been told they can continue to refuse to prescribe items that might clash with their personal religious beliefs.

A revised code of conduct from the new industry regulator will allow staff to opt out of providing items such as the morning-after pill and contraception.

But they may in future have to give customers details of alternative shops.

The National Secular Society wanted the General Pharmaceutical Council to scrap the so-called conscience clause.

The General Pharmaceutical Council (GPhC) is to take over the regulation of pharmacists, pharmacy technicians and the registration of pharmacy premises from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society later this year.

John McManus, BBC Religious Affairs producer

I have been told that the so-called "conscience clause" is only used by a very small number of pharmacists who feel their religious beliefs would be undermined by giving out contraception.

Similarly, doctors have long been able to both turn down training in abortion procedures, or carry them out, if they have ethical objections.

Yet critics argue that even pharmacists working for private retail chains are providing a public service, often in conjunction with local GPs and hospitals, and should be ready to put their own objections to one side.

The new regulator says it is aware that the clause can be controversial, which is why it will consult more widely on the issue later in the year.

And the Royal Society of Pharmacists insist that members who "opt-out" of providing services must consider what effect their actions may have on a patient.

For now though, there is still a chance that members of the public wanting various forms of contraception could be turned away by their local chemist.

Under its new code, pharmacists with strong religious principles will still be able to continue to refuse to sell or prescribe products if they feel that doing so would contradict their beliefs.

But the GPhC says pharmacists who refuse services could be obliged to tell patients where they can access them and it plans to consult more widely on the issue.

Terry Sanderson, president of the National Secular Society, said he was disappointed by the code.

"This was a perfect opportunity to severely restrict the exercise of this supposed conscience clause which has caused a great deal of embarrassment and inconvenience to people recently.

"It seems incredible that pharmacists can arbitrarily tell people that they won't serve them with medication that has been prescribed by a doctor."

The issue was highlighted recently by a woman denied the pill by a Sheffield chemist. She was told to return to the shop the following day when another staff member would be on duty.

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