By Carol Glatz, Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — All health care professionals have a right to conscientious objection, just as they have a right to denounce unjust harm inflicted on innocent and defenseless life, Pope Francis said.

When it comes to abortion, “I have been very clear — it is homicide and it is not licit to become complicit,” he told a group of pharmacists and other medical professionals.

The pope’s remarks came during an audience at the Vatican Oct. 14 with about 150 health care professionals attending a national congress sponsored by an Italian association of pharmacists working in hospitals or for the government health service. The Oct. 14-17 congress in Rome was looking at the pharmacist as a “promoter and interpreter of change, emergencies and planning.”

The pope said the congress would be an important occasion to reemphasize the importance of having a nationwide public health care system, calling it “an essential element for guaranteeing the common good and the social growth of a country.”

He encouraged pharmacists and those they work with to continue to serve their patients with “patience, consistency and precision,” especially as their responsibilities are often hidden and their duties “routine.”

The “ethical dimension” of their profession must be supported and protected, he said. As individuals, all pharmacists handle “medicinal products that may, however, turn into poison.”

They must be vigilant to make sure their goal always is to protect “the life of the patient in all of its aspects,” he said.

“You are always at the service of human life, and this may, in certain cases, lead to conscientious objection, which is not disloyalty, rather the opposite, (it is) loyalty to your profession, if validly motivated,” he said.

The pope said there seems to be a trend in thinking that getting rid of conscientious objection would be a good idea.

However, he said, conscientious objection is an ethical principle for every health care professional, “and this is never negotiable; it is the ultimate responsibility” of each individual as is “the denunciation of injustices committed that harm innocent and defenseless life.”

“It’s a very sensitive issue that requires both great competence and great integrity at the same time,” he added.

Speaking about the church’s clear stance against abortion, the pope told his audience that what they must do “is to be close” to those involved in an unplanned pregnancy, especially the woman, “so that she does not end up thinking abortion as a solution because, in reality, it is not a solution.”

“You get the bill 10, 20, 30 years later,” he said, referring to the very high emotional and psychological costs involved.

“The throwaway culture must never undermine your profession,” he said.