Legal experts say the pharmacist in Saguenay, Queensland, who refused to give the woman a pill to take the next morning, was within his rights, but he had an obligation to help her in other ways.
Radio-Canada reported on Wednesday that the 24-year-old woman said pharmacist Jean Kutu in the Chikoutimi area refused to sell her emergency oral contraceptives because it “didn’t fit his values.” In the end, she went to another pharmacy to buy a pill.
The woman wished to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal.
When asked if the pharmacist’s actions were justified, human rights lawyer Julius Gray replied that a person cannot be forced to act against his beliefs.
“A person’s conscience is to be respected unless there is a perfectly good reason [for it not to be], – he said. – We consider everything else – equality, justice, etc. – more important than conscience. But conscience is a fundamental thing.”
According to Section 3 of the Quebec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, “Every person is a holder of 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 conscience should not be underestimated. But, like most freedoms, there can be limits.
For example, says Gray, if this pharmacy was the only one in the region where a pill could be purchased, then the pharmacist might be required to prescribe it.
“You are balancing the rights to freedom and equality of one person with the freedom and rights to equality of another,” Gray said. “But if there’s another pharmacy in the neighborhood, or another pharmacist even works with him, he might say, ‘I don’t want to do that.'”
To explain that the pharmacist was acting within his rights, Gray also pointed to Section 7 and Section 15 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which discuss the interests of liberty and the right to equality.
- Quebec woman speaks out after pharmacist denies her pill the next morning because of his religious beliefs
Pearl Eliadis, a human rights lawyer and assistant professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy, notes that a woman had the right receive the pill the next morning when she asked for it, and in a way that meets deadlines to ensure a safe medical procedure.
According to Familiprix, a Canadian group of independent pharmacists, the emergency oral contraceptive pill should be taken 12 to 24 hours after intercourse for maximum effectiveness.
She says the pharmacist had a duty to be diligent and make sure the woman got the care she needed.
Both Eliadis and Gray say companies should screen pharmacists to see if they have beliefs, religious or otherwise, that prevent them from meeting their legal obligations. Such conversations with staff will allow pharmacies to plan accordingly, they said.
Eliadis added that while women’s rights and secularism are an integral part of Quebec society, a patient can still be denied medical services due to the provider’s personal beliefs.
“How is it that we spent all this political energy to make sure that women who seek … certain public positions cannot wear religious clothes when it is prescribed by their religion, which in no way affects anyone’s rights? ” she said.
“Of course, the pharmacist could not speak his mind and just say: “Let me find you another colleague.”
Processes in place
Radio-Canada reported that pharmacist Jean Coutou acknowledged that the incident was not the first time he had refused to prescribe emergency oral contraception.
But Marie-Claude Bacon, a spokesperson for Metro, which owns Jean Coutue, called the account “speculative” in an email to the CBC.
She said that most of the company’s pharmacies already have mechanisms in place that allow customers to receive services from another specialist on site or, when the pharmacist is on duty alone, “as soon as possible at another nearby pharmacy.”
The company declined to comment on what processes are in place for customers and how employees will be penalized if they don’t help them get the pills by other means after refusing to prescribe them themselves.
Gisele Dallaire, coordinator Consulting desk for women’s groups in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jeansays that while pharmacies should consider the comfort level of their employees, businesses should make it clear where and how women can get the service so they don’t waste time.
“It’s in the title. This is an emergency,” Dallaire said. “Once you make a decision, and for a woman it’s not an easy decision… you don’t want to stay anymore.”
“It is not the buyer who must adapt. It must be a pharmacist. [who should] adapt and be ready to serve.”