Conscientious objectors have right not to stock morning after pill, judge says

Women’s rights activists say women still find it difficult to access the morning-after pill

Access to the morning-after pill remains problematic for women – especially on Sundays when not all pharmacies are open, according to women’s rights activists.

The problem stems from the refusal of some pharmacists to stock and sell the emergency contraceptive because they have moral objections to the pill.

A recent undertaking by newspaper Illum showed that 70% of pharmacies contacted by the newspaper sold the morning-after pill. However, it also confirmed that three in 10 pharmacies were refusing to stock the pill.

The situation prompted Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar to call on pharmacists to set aside their prejudices and stop refusing the sale of emergency contraception.

On Facebook, Cutajar argued that access to contraception was a basic right for everyone, including women.

This has opened up a debate on whether pharmacists or pharmacy owners have a right to conscientious objection on the matter.

Judge Bonello: Public who wants to acquire the pill is well served, and at the same time, the conscience of those who are reluctant to take part in what they see as a moral and criminal offence, is equally safeguarded
Judge Bonello: Public who wants to acquire the pill is well served, and at the same time, the conscience of those who are reluctant to take part in what they see as a moral and criminal offence, is equally safeguarded

Former European Court of Human Rights judge Giovanni Bonello argued that since almost three-quarters of pharmacies in Malta stocked the morning-after pill there was no “national crisis” and that people who wanted to avail themselves of the service had ample places to purchase the item, he noted.

“The public who want to acquire the pill is well served, and at the same time, the conscience of those who are reluctant to take part in what they see as a moral and criminal offence, is equally safeguarded,” Bonello said.

In these circumstances, he added, the fundamental right of freedom of conscience should prevail.

He said that several reputable scientists believe that the morning-after pill is in essence, abortifacient. “This raises a serious issue of freedom of conscience, particularly in a country like Malta in which abortion is not only a moral wrong but also a criminal offence,” Bonello argued.

Andrea Dibben: Pharmacists who are refusing to sell it are discriminating against women and jeopardising their reproductive health
Andrea Dibben: Pharmacists who are refusing to sell it are discriminating against women and jeopardising their reproductive health

However, activist and social policy academic Andrea Dibben said scientific evidence was clear that the morning-after pill is purely a contraception and not abortifacient in any way.

She believes that pharmacists who are refusing to sell it are discriminating against women and jeopardising their reproductive health.

“Emergency contraception is an essential health product for women, and pharmacists, as health professionals, have a responsibility to provide health services. Just like there is no conscientious objection on the sale of other health product there shouldn’t be one on any type of contraception,” Dibben said.

She explained that the problem was more acute over the weekend when pharmacies open on a roster basis on Sunday.

“Just last weekend we had a report from a woman who was sent around to three pharmacies and could not procure the pill from anywhere. She even contacted public health services to no avail. If she is pregnant, this is a potential abortion that could have been prevented. And this is a regular occurrence that practically happens every weekend,” she said.

Chamber of Pharmacists’ president Mary Ann Sant Fournier said that the chamber continued to maintain the opinion it shared with MaltaToday in 2016, that pharmacists were independent and free professionals who may opt to conscientiously object to dispensing the morning-after pill.

Nonetheless, Bonello said the problems arising from conscientious objections are resolved differently in different countries.

The former judge explained that there seemed to be no standard solution which applied to all cases and in all circumstances.

Bonello gave the example of two British cases brought to the European court of human rights by adherents of the Sikh culture and religion – within ancient tradition, a Sikh male can never cut his hair and must wear a dagger, so when compulsory crash helmets were introduced for motorcyclists, some traditionalist Sikhs challenged this imposition because the new law would oblige them to cut their hair. Another separate issue was the wearing of ‘religious’ daggers in public.

“The Strasbourg Court decided that forcing a Sikh to cut his hair would be a disproportionate invasion of his freedom of conscience. But the prohibition of carrying a dagger in public was necessary for ensuring the higher value of preventing crime,” Bonello said.

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