Legal experts say a pharmacist in Saguenay, Que., who refused to prescribe the morning-after pill to a woman was within her rights, but had an obligation to accommodate her in other ways.
Radio-Canada reported on Wednesday that a 24-year-old woman said a Jean Coutu pharmacist in the borough of Chicoutimi refused to sell her emergency oral contraception because it “would not correspond to her values.” Eventually she went to another pharmacy to get the pill.
The woman wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
When asked if the pharmacist was justified in his actions, human rights lawyer Julius Gray said a person could not be forced to act against their beliefs.
“A person’s conscience must be respected unless there is a completely compelling reason [for it not to be]”, he said. “We consider all kinds of other things – equality, fairness, etc. – as more important than consciousness. But consciousness is a fundamental thing.”
According to section 3 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, “Everyone is entitled to fundamental freedoms, including freedom of conscience, freedom of religion, freedom of opinion, freedom of expression, freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association.”
Gray says the importance of awareness should not be underestimated. But like most freedoms, there can be limits.
For example, says Gray, if that pharmacy was the only one in the area where the pill could be obtained, the pharmacist might be forced to prescribe it.
“You’re balancing one person’s liberty and equality rights with another person’s liberty and equality rights,” Gray said. “But if there’s another pharmacy nearby or another pharmacist even working with him, he can say, ‘I don’t want to do this. “”
To explain that the pharmacist acted within the scope of his rights, Gray also invoked sections 7 and 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which deal with liberty and equality rights.
Pearl Eliadis, human rights lawyer and associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy, notes that the woman had the right to receive the morning after pill when she requests it and within the time limits to ensure a safe medical procedure.
The emergency oral contraceptive pill should be taken 12 to 24 hours after sex for maximum effectiveness, according to Familiprix, a Canadian group of independent pharmacists.
She says the pharmacist had an obligation to be diligent and ensure that the woman received the necessary medical service.
Eliadis and Gray say companies should screen pharmacists to understand if they have any beliefs, religious or otherwise, that would prevent them from fulfilling their legal obligations. Having these conversations with staff would allow pharmacies to plan accordingly, they said.
Eliadis added that even though women’s rights and secularism are integral to Quebec society, a patient can still be denied medical services due to the personal beliefs of a health care provider.
“How is it that we have spent all this political energy to ensure that women who seek … certain public positions cannot wear religious dress when mandated by their religion, which in no way affects anyone’s rights?” she said.
“It would certainly have been possible for the pharmacist not to express his point of view and simply say, ‘Let me find you another colleague’.”
Process in place
Radio-Canada reported that pharmacist Jean Coutu acknowledged the incident was not the first time he had refused to prescribe emergency oral contraception.
But Marie-Claude Bacon, a spokesperson for Jean Coutu owner Metro, called the account “speculative” in an email to CBC.
She said most of the company’s pharmacies already have mechanisms in place that allow customers to receive services from another professional on site or, when the pharmacist is alone on duty, “as soon as possible in a another of its nearby pharmacies”.
The company declined to comment on the processes in place to accommodate customers and how employees would be reprimanded if they did not help them obtain the pill through other means after refusing to prescribe it themselves.
Gisèle Dallaire, coordinator of the Consultation table of women’s groups in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jeansays that while pharmacies should consider the comfort level of their employees, companies should make it clear where and how women can receive the service to avoid wasting time.
“It’s written in the name. It’s an emergency,” Dallaire said. “Once you’ve made the decision and for a woman it’s not an easy decision…you don’t want to stay anymore.”
“It’s not the customer who has to adapt. It’s the pharmacist [who should] adapt and be ready to serve.”