Pharmacists Must Dispense With Their Conscience?

CALGARY, Alberta — When it comes to prescribing drugs they consider immoral, pharmacists have always relied on “conscience clauses” that give them an out.

Safeway grocers seem poised to put a stop to that in its Canadian stores.

The corporation stated in a new policy that it will attempt to accommodate pharmacists who object to dispensing such drugs, but not at the expense of losing business.

The document “Conscientious Objectors and Accommodation” begins by referring to “certain prescriptions, e.g. euthanasia drugs, RU486 (‘morning after pill’).”

It continues, “Safeway Limited has the right to see that its employees promptly serve its customers. The Company does not have to turn away business or direct a customer to a competitor under such circumstances. Further, the customer has a legal right to the prescription requested.”

The document also states, “The objecting pharmacist must make the request (not to fill certain prescriptions) in advance (as opposed to deciding on the spot) and may be asked to provide documentation to support the request for accommodation.”

Canada Safeway Limited's parent is Pleasanton, Calif.-based Safeway, Inc. The chain has 211 stores in Canada and 1,448 in the United States.

A Safeway pharmacist leaked the confidential document to Ted Gerk, who is director of Pro-Life Resource Center in Kelowna, British Columbia. The pharmacist told Gerk that he felt his job would be at risk if he talked to the press.

“Safeway was being very protective of this document,” said Gerk in an interview with the Register. “It's almost as if we picked up a rock and watched them run for cover.”

Gerk made the document public in Canada on April 4. The American Life League simultaneously notified media outlets in the United States. The Register obtained a copy of the document from the American Life League.

Gerk found danger lurking in the corporation's new pharmacy policies.

“It would appear that Canada Safeway is preparing for the day when euthanasia is legal in Canada,” said Gerk. “To blatantly mention ‘euthanasia drugs’ alongside abortion drugs proves our concerns and warnings were correct all along.”

He added that the corporation expects its employees “to act like well-trained robots, setting aside their ethical beliefs in the advancement of profit.”

Gerk also took issue with the policy that states that pharmacists might be required to provide documentation to support reasons for an accommodation.

“This sounds like employees will be asked to prove they have a conscience,” he said. “Exactly how one does that on paper, I don't know.”

Canada Safeway confirmed that the document obtained by the Register was current company policy.

“It is our company's document,” acknowledged Toby Oswald, vice president for the public affairs at Canada Safeway.

Oswald said she understood that pharmacists could be confused about the new procedures. “We looked at it and realized that it needed some clarification,” the spokes-woman said. “We are going to revisit those guidelines.”

Asked whether revised guidelines would protect the “conscience clause” of pharmacists, Oswald said, “We certainly do respect their beliefs.”

Asked why “euthanasia drugs and RU486” were listed when both are illegal in Canada, Oswald said, “That is one of the areas we are looking at. We wouldn't be asking our pharmacists to do what is illegal.”

“The reference was one made to identify what might be a concern,” she said, “not what would happen.”

Oswald didn't directly answer whether the corporation would apologize for the policy, but she said that the company's pharmacy director met with pharmacists in British Columbia to discuss changing the policy.

“We are going to be putting back what guidelines … should have been policy,” she said.

The director of pharmacy operations for Safeway Inc., Rich Canilla, told the Register that he knew of no such policies for Safeway stores in the United States, but refused any further comment.

American Life League spokesman Steve Sanborn said Canada Safeway needs to explain how the new guidelines ever became company policy. “It's got to go public with an apology to the customers and the employees.”