A pro-life pharmacist is claiming partial victory in a struggle with Alberta’s pharmacy college, which is allowing her to refuse to dispense abortificients and contraceptives to her customers.

Maria Bizecki, a pharmacist with the Calgary Co-op store, became the subject of a prolonged review by the Alberta College of Pharmacists over her refusal to provide the birth control pill to a customer.

Bizecki, a member of Pharmacists for Life International, has long lobbied for the right of pharmacists and other health care professionals to avoid engaging in activities that are at odds with their Christian views on the sanctity of life and human reproduction. In addition to the birth control pill, she is morally opposed to such products as the morning-after pill, condoms, IUDs, Depo Provera and related contraceptives.

Her decision to refuse to dispense abortifacients to a customer came to the attention of abortion supporters in the Calgary area, who began an internet-based campaign to have her called before the Alberta College of Pharmacists. Bizecki was subsequently suspended with pay for over a year while the college investigated her action.

Bizecki and the Alberta college eventually reached an agreement whereby the pharmacist is permitted to allow a colleague to fill prescriptions for contraceptives and abortifacients. Michael Izzotti, a co-ordinator of Pharmacists for Life International – Canada, told The Interim that the actual details of the settlement are relatively simple. “She (Bizecki) now works in a store where prescriptions are taken in by a technician and put in a basket. She takes only non-objectionable prescriptions to fill from the basket,” Izzotti said.

Although Bizecki is relieved that her four-year ordeal is over, she remains concerned that the agreement with the Alberta College still requires pro-life pharmacists to refer customers to other pharmacists when dealing with morally objectionable products. Nonetheless, she believes her case has set a positive precedent.

“I believe a significant precedent has been set, because my case proved that if we have the political will, it is possible to accommodate the interests of both parties without suppressing the freedom of conscience of others. The Alberta College of Pharmacists and the Calgary Co-op have both acknowledged that conscientious objectors are worthy of respect and accommodation in the workplace, which is a huge victory. Co-op even put it in writing and sent the memo out to all its stores and departments.”

Bizecki believes the Alberta College – and by extension, other pharmacist regulatory bodies – will have to revisit the issue of referral. “Medical professionals should not be forced to participate in referrals if it violates their conscience,” she said. “The patient is always free to access another health care provider of their choice. At the moment, the Alberta College of Pharmacists believes, like other Canadian pharmacy associations, that a pharmacist may refuse to participate, but requires them to refer. My case will force them to re-evaluate this aspect. The rationale behind this is that it enables pharmacists to exercise their right to object without being unfairly persecuted. This is a false compromise (because) it is nothing more than an assertion that (regulators) do not believe referral is morally wrong. Therefore, it is imposed upon the conscientious objector.”

Sean Murphy, administrator of the British Columbia-based Protection of Conscience Project, told The Interim that the Bizecki case emphasizes the tension between pro-life health care professionals and their regulatory bodies. “This case illustrates several problems faced by conscientious objectors in pharmacy; notably, the hostility of pharmacy regulatory authorities who seem to think that they can force Canadians to surrender their freedom as a condition of membership in a profession,” Murphy said.

Murphy also referred to an observation by constitutional lawyer Iain Benson, of the Centre for Cultural Renewal, to the effect that while Canadian case law supports religious freedom in the work place, “pharmacists have yet to develop a serious approach to respecting conscience and religious beliefs.”

According to Benson, “the kind of approach the (Canadian Pharmacists Association) ‘official’ spokesmen take would be laughed at by other groups, such as the Canadian Medical Association. Once the Canadian Pharmacists Association develops a greater maturity, it will learn that law and ethics require more respect for pharmacists’ consciences.”