This article appears in the Witness section of the Summer 2017 issue of the New Humanist. Subscribe today.

Imagine the scene. The condom splits and you need the morning-after pill, which has been available without a prescription in the UK since 2001. You go to your nearest pharmacy immediately, although it is late at night. When you arrive, you discover that the pharmacist is a devout Catholic who refuses to sell you the medicine.

This would be entirely in line with official guidance, which allows pharmacists to refuse treatment if they have a conscientious objection. The pharmacist could refer you elsewhere: but let’s say you’re in a rural area, or, as in this example, it’s late at night. There might be no other pharmacies you can go to.

You’d be left without that emergency contraceptive, which it is your legal right to buy. While contraceptive and fertility medication are those most obviously affected by this rule, some mental health or addiction medications might be affected too.

In December 2016, the General Pharmaceutical Council launched a consultation on this guidance, and earlier this year it proposed that standards be changed to put the needs of people using pharmacies at the forefront. The new guidance states that pharmacists must “take responsibility for ensuring that person-centred care is not compromised because of personal values and beliefs”.

This brings pharmacies in line with other NHS services, which are bound to provide certain types of care regardless of the medical practitioner’s own religious beliefs.

There was predictably some pushback from religious groups. David Clapham, treasurer of the group Christians in Pharmacy, said that the plans may make “the position of some excellent professionals untenable”, as some “cannot agree in all conscience to supply certain medications”. Hina Shahid, chair of the Muslim Doctors Association, said that while patient-centred care should of course be the priority, “certain proposed changes are very restrictive, such as removing the right of referral”. She added: “The guidance purports that patient-centred care and the autonomy and values of health practitioners are mutually exclusive, which they are not.”

Despite these objections, however, the General Pharmaceutical Council held firm, arguing that the new guidance simply makes it clear that the patient must come first and that referral is not always the most appropriate option. The changes have been confirmed.

“The onus is now on pharmacists to ensure that they don’t put themselves in a position to obstruct patient care,” said Dr Anthony Lempert, co-ordinator of the Secular Medical Forum, which campaigned for a change in policy. He added that the new guidance makes it “explicit” that “the responsibility is on the pharmacist to ensure that no one’s care is compromised because of their views.”