Pharmacists' Freedom of Conscience Uncertain

Country: Germany

Date of incident: September 19, 2012

Category: Government Restrictions

Attack against: Morals

Area of case: Governmental / Workplace



While the law does not protect the freedom of conscience for German pharmacists, a letter from the ministry, dated 1986 upholds it. Legally, the letter is not binding. The uncertainty of whether this letter would be followed by today’s courts constitutes a difficulty in the ethical considerations and the freedom of acting according to one’s conscience of pharmacists in Germany.

The German law requires pharmacists to provide prescribed medications within due time (§ 31 Abs. 1 Satz 1 and § 17 Abs. 4 SGB V). There is no exception for ethically ambiguous drugs, such as the early abortifacient morning-after-pill or vaccinations based on human-embryo-destruction. If a pharmacy fails to deliver, its concession may be withdrawn (§§ 1 Abs. 2, 2 and 4 ApoG). Surgical abortion is subject to a conscientious objection clause, but early destruction of the embryo or prevention of nidation are not qualified as abortion in German law (§ 218 Abs. 1 Satz 2 StGB). A pharmacists’ initiative asked the German ministry for health to clarify the issue in 1986. The reply of the ministry stated that freedom of conscience (Artikel 4 Abs. 1 GG) was to be granted also to pharmacists and no fines would apply for the decline of the sale of early abortifacients, as long as they are not prescribed for therapeutical reasons. The answer of the ministery, however, is not legally binding. The uncertainty of whether the letter of the ministry dated 1986 would be followed by today’s courts constitutes a difficulty in the ethical considerations and the freedom of acting according to one’s conscience of pharmacists in Germany. It is therefore advisable to add a conscience clause to for example the German Apothekengesetz or the Sozialgesetzbuch V.
Sources / detailed summary: VRiaVG a. D. Bernward Büchner (Freiburg), Zeitschrift für Lebensrecht 2/2012, S. 40 ff.
Letter of the Ministry: Schreiben des Bundesministeriums für Jugend, Familie, Frauen und Gesundheit (BMJFFG) v. 30.12.1986 – 354/356-5820-2/9, veröffentlicht in: Cyran/Rotta, Apothekenbetriebsordnung (Stand: April 2010), Rn. 491 zu § 17 (unkommentiert), sowie in: Pfeil/Pieck/Blume, Apothekenbetriebsordnung  (Stand:  2009), Rn. 172 zu § 17  (mit uneingeschränkter Zustimmung).