Experts in women’s health have cited pharmacists who prevent or dissuade people from using emergency contraception “on cultural or religious grounds” as a barrier to accessing reproductive health services, the government has said.
The comments came in response to a government call for evidence on health issues that specifically affect women, launched in March 2021, intended to inform its first ever ‘Women’s Health Strategy for England’.
In a summary of responses, published on 13 April 2022, the government said it received 436 responses from organisations and experts in the field, of which 67 mentioned “sexual health and/or contraception”.
The summary document did not specify what each organisation or expert said in their responses, but summarised that they had “flagged that some groups of women are likely to experience greater barriers to being listened to by healthcare professionals or accessing the sexual and reproductive health services they need”.
Examples provided by unspecified respondents, “based on anecdotal evidence” and engagement with specific groups of women, included “healthcare professionals, including pharmacists, preventing or dissuading girls and women from using emergency contraception on cultural or religious grounds”.
“There are also reports that some women are not able to access emergency contraception, or have been dissuaded from doing so, because of family or community ties to pharmacists, who hold specific religious beliefs about sex before marriage and pregnancy termination,” the document said.
When asked to put forward proposals to improve outcomes in this area, the document added that respondents suggested providing “better education and guidance for healthcare professionals, including pharmacists, on providing women with unbiased information on the different types of contraceptives (including emergency contraception) available”.
According to guidance published by the General Pharmaceutical Council in July 2017, pharmacists “have the right to practise in line with their religion, personal values or beliefs as long as they act in accordance with equalities and human rights law and make sure that person-centred care is not compromised”.
But it adds that pharmacists “must not discriminate against a person based on their own — or the person’s — religion, personal values or beliefs, or lack of religion or belief”.
“If a pharmacy professional is unwilling to provide a certain service, they should take steps to make sure the person asking for care is at the centre of their decision-making, so they can access the service they need in a timely manner and without hindrance,” it continues, emphasising the need to “keep in mind the difference between religion, personal values or beliefs, and a professional clinical judgement”.
Thorrun Govind, chair of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society’s English Pharmacy Board, said: “We are dismayed to hear that pharmacists are sometimes considered a barrier to girls and women getting hold of emergency contraception when needed.
“Pharmacists should always be putting the interests of their patients first. If there are personal values or religious beliefs which are likely to impact on the provision of services, we would expect these to be flagged in advance so systems can be put into place to ensure girls and women can get hold of the medicines and services that they need.”
The initial call for evidence ran from 8 March 2021 to 13 June 2021, informing the government’s ‘Vision for the Women’s Health Strategy for England’, published on 23 December 2021.
While the vision does not mention pharmacists, it sets out an ambition to improve “equitable access to and experience of [health] services”.
The government said in December 2021 that the ‘Women’s Health Strategy’ will be published “in spring 2022”.
In May 2019, the Company Chemists’ Association called for a single national pharmacy specification for emergency hormonal contraception services “to improve accessibility”.