The Malta Independent 4 December 2020, Friday

Conscientious objection must be included in equality bill, pharmacists say

Thursday, 8 October 2020, 12:46 Last update: about 3 months ago

It is indeed a worrying paradox that in drafting a legislation to eradicate discrimination and ensure equity and equality for Malta’s citizens, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Good Governance and the PS for Equality and Reforms have mooted a Bill (96) which in essence is a contradiction in terms in that it discriminates specifically against the wide community of all health care professionals, The Chamber of Pharmacists said in a statement.

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In the first instance, the Bill as drafted is envisaged to be a Supreme Act, (Clause 32(3) refers) rendering null all other enacted legislation. This has raised the alarm bells of many sectors of Maltese society in particular, healthcare professionals.

The Bill as drafted and amended to date, undermines and renders null the Oath which pharmacists, who are independent health care professionals, on the day of their graduation and, since time immemorial, undertake a covenant with society they will serve throughout their professional life, by taking an oath whereby they will base their practice on science and conscience, reflected in the Code of Ethics of the Pharmacy profession which harbours the conscientious objection clause.

Unequivocally their maxim is “primum non nocere” – “first, do no harm” in all its inferences.

Pharmacists as stated in their Oath, cannot legally, professionally and ethically discriminate when rendering a pharmaceutical service to their patients and clients but they have the precious right to freedom of thought and conscience in their discernment of the cases presenting.

They have a right to expect the Government of the day, which by proposing legislation to ensure that "nobody is treated less favourably in any sphere of life", and has a claim to championing democracy and pluralism, to continue to empower them and protect their rights to practice in an environment of freedom of thought and conscience.

It should be clarified that this Bill as drafted and amended impacts the rights of freedom of thought and conscience which is guaranteed by the Constitution of Malta and recognized by the United Nations Charter Of Human Rights, the chamber said.

Moreover, there are several Charters and Conventions of the Council of Europe which uphold these principles. Indeed, the PACE resolution recommends that Member States, including Malta should legislate to guarantee conscientious objection.

The Kamra Tal-Ispizjara Ta’ Malta forwarded its submissions and amendments to Bill 96 the Minister and other relevant organisations and institutions including the House of Representatives and the Pharmacy Council  on 9 September.

In a separate statement, the Pharmacy Council, the legally recognised authority regulating  pharmacists,  pharmacy technicians and qualified persons is gravely  concerned about the Equality Bill No 96 of 19-7-2019 as it has series implications on the pharmacy profession.

This proposed law aimed to provide a legal framework to prevent any form of discrimination is in fact:

1. Discriminating against pharmacists and other healthcare professionals; and

2. Undermining their professional autonomy, moral convictions and moral integrity.

Moreover, it does not include a conscientious objection clause.

Pharmacists, in practising their profession, take decisions based on science and ethical principles inherent to the pharmacy profession and their conscience.

The proposed articles 7 and 8 contemplate placing pharmacists into a conflict of conscience in relationship to their legal obligations to render a professional service which goes against their conscience. 

Acting against one's conscience undermines the pharmacists' autonomy and their moral integrity, which  moral integrity is the hallmark of the trust based relationship between pharmacists and patients.

Acting against one's conscience is in breach of the pharmacists' fundamental right to Freedom of Conscience and Religion as enshrined in our Constitution, in The European Convention of Human Rights and in the Charter of Fundamental Human Rights of the EU.

The Pharmacy Council is most concerned about the proposed articles 3 and 32, the Supremacy Articles. These articles render the proposed legislation supreme over any other legislation,  any future legislation, the Code of Ethics of  the Pharmaceutical Profession and the Oath taken by pharmacists when they receive their licence to  from the President of Malta to practice their profession. It is inconceivable that pharmacists would be obliged to render a professional service, which is in breach of the Oath they have pledged to adhere to.

The Pharmacy Council is against article 32 and strongly urges that this article be deleted.

The Pharmacy Council must highlight the fact that it is imperative to include a consciencious objection clause  under article 6 (exceptions). This clause must include a proviso stating that  patients are informed of any conscientious objection in a timely manner, and that the State  should make provisions to ensure access to lawful health services to protect patients' rights.

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