By Linda Wegner

The Interim

In June, pharmacists from across Canada gathered in Saskatoon for their annual convention. Maria Bezecki and Mike Izzoti, both pharmacists active in the pro-life movement, travelled to the event with serious concerns about the erosion of their professional right to refuse to dispense drugs based on their freedom of conscience and religion. Nothing happened to alleviate those fears, they said.

Bezecki, spokesperson for Concerned Pharmacists for Conscience, believes that pharmacists are simply asking for the same rights available for other health care professionals. “Like physicians, we want the ability to opt out of participating or referring for things that violate our freedom of conscience and religion,” she says.

Izzoti represents the Canadian branch of Pharmacists for Life (PFL) International based in Hamilton, Ont. The Powell, Ohio organization was formed in the late 1980s when abortion drugs such as RU-486 were being introduced.

“Since then we’ve come down with a plethora of drugs,” says Izzoti, “and we’re seeing the whole thing sliding into more and more abortive-type drugs.”

Although abortive-type drugs and, particularly, Preven, the so-called “morning-after” pill, have received a lot of media attention recently, Bezecki and Izzoti also cited potential pressure on pharmacists to dispense drugs for the purpose of euthanasia and assisted suicide, as sources of great concern. According to Izzoti, pharmacists may be asked to use their professional health-care skills to cause death.

“At least the pharmacist knows,” he says. “They (doctors) respect the pharmacist’s skills … I don’t know how the doctor indicates it, but the pharmacist knows that the prescription is for the purposes of euthanasia or assisted suicide and that gives them the ability to reject filling that particular prescription.”

Bezecki said that while the use of narcotics for pain relief in terminal illnesses, particularly cancer, is necessary, there have been examples where larger doses were deliberately prescribed in order to cause premature death.

Both Bezecki and Izzotti admit that instances of deliberate overdosing are infrequent in Canada but both are deeply concerned over the future role pharmacists may be asked to play in euthanasia and assisted suicide. When the pair presented those concerns to the convention, both were disturbed about the lack of understanding on the part of their professional peers.

“I found that just even mentioning this issue caused a lot of opposition,” says Izzoti. “I don’t think even one pharmacist spoke for us.”

Although they spoke with appreciation of the session moderator’s respect during their presentation, both believe that the general consensus of delegates is that Preven should be readily available, with or without prescription.

“We seem not to have shaken that at all,” Izzoti says, although he adds, “A lot of people took our literature so perhaps there is still some hope.”

Bezecki validates the rights of patients to have access to their drugs but contends that pharmacists have rights, too.

“My concern is the idea that patients’ rights should supersede pharmacists’ rights,” she says. “We have rights and we have to fight for them.”