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I was given your name by a pro-life group in my state. I was told at work that I had to participate in an abortion procedure. Is there anything I can do?" a quivering voice replied as I answered the phone.

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Although this has become a rather routine question for me as executive director of the National Association of Pro-Life Nurses, they are words I always dread. It means another nurse is paying the price for her pro-life beliefs.


This time it is a nurse in New Jersey working in obstetrics in a large university hospital. She has been employed there for eighteen years, the last four of them in OB. Rhonda knew that abortions were sometimes performed on the unit, but the staff was assured that they could refuse to participate if they objected to the procedure for religious or moral reasons.


In four years, refusing had not been a problem-until Joan became charge nurse. Joan was newer on the unit than Rhonda, and Joan had aspirations for advancement. While they were peers, Rhonda had frequently heard complaints about Joan's rudeness from patients, their families and certain physicians and nurses. Rhonda had confronted Joan about this several times. Now Joan was working her first night in the charge position, and Rhonda was on staff. Joan was about to get even.


Before the assignments were made, Rhonda informed Joan that she could not take the patient scheduled for an abortion because of her religious beliefs. Joan replied, "That's too bad. It's about time you did one. You've been getting away with it long enough."


Rhonda reaffirmed her position to no avail. Joan called the assistant director of nursing to report Rhonda's refusal, who told her that Rhonda should take the assignment or be faced with suspension.


Rhonda felt that she could not abandon the patient. She also could not afford to risk losing her job. She took the assignment under protest, citing her religious beliefs and the undue mental stress it was causing her.


By the time Rhonda contacted me three days later, she hadn't been able to eat or sleep. It affected her home life and her ability to attend her college classes. She cried every time she tried to talk about, or even think about, the experience. She was waiting for her immediate supervisor to send a copy of the hospital policy regarding right to refusal, which she was told existed although she had never seen it.


All of this happened a year ago, and the unfortunate incident is not over. The National Association of Pro-Life Nurses referred Rhonda to legal organizations that specialize in defending people whose religious beliefs are challenged. It was only when she was put in touch with them that she was able to obtain a copy of the hospital policy and found that she should have been asked to put her objections in writing.1 The attorneys are still dealing with the hospital over the incident and what sort of obligation they have to Rhonda for ignoring her religious principles.


Unfortunately, Rhonda's story is not unique. Nurses whose respect for the sanctity of life is being ignored or scorned have contacted the National Association of Pro-life Nurses three times since then. I have heard or read about many more in that same time frame. I often wonder how many incidents such as these never come to our attention. Nurses who hold pro-life beliefs are discriminated against in the workplace on a routine basis, either by not being hired or by being denied advancement.


Since its beginning, the work of the National Association of Pro-Life Nurses has revolved around these legal issues. Although we would like to spend more time educating nurses and the general public about pro-life concerns, our time has been consumed by the need to address legal issues. We have not been able to devote the effort necessary to change the minds and hearts of those we serve because of this mission we uniquely fill by default.


When RN Magazine repeated its survey on attitudes of nurses toward abortion in 1999, it found an almost parallel flip-flop from the survey done in 1988. In 1988 the majority of nurses (52%) said they would work in an OB/GYN unit where abortions are performed, while 48% said they would not. In 1999 that split widened considerably but reversed with 39% saying they would work in an OB/GYN unit where abortions are performed and 61% would not.2


Unfortunately, this change in attitude has not translated into a greater appreciation for the sensitivities of pro-life nurses who work on these units. This is largely due to the persistent support of abortion by professional nursing organizations. They have taken the extreme position of defending partial-birth abortions as a matter of choice for the mother.3


I spoke in favor of enactment of a Conscience Clause Bill in my state at a recent hearing, and our state nursing organization spoke against the bill that would protect nurses from reprisal for refusal to participate in procedures objectionable to them on moral or religious grounds. The organization's real interest is apparently somewhere besides protection of many of the nurses it claims to serve.


Most of us see nursing as a noble profession, a call to serve humanity, particularly in its physical suffering. We serve the most needy of society, the most vulnerable. We are, by our very nature, an altruistic group who will rise to the defense of the vulnerable and the defenseless. We will, therefore, champion the unborn, the infirm and elderly, the handicapped. This is why we often find ourselves on the unpopular side of issues.


One reporter interviewed me regarding my pro-life view on end-of-life issues. I explained our opposition to the deliberate taking of a life, how it cheapens life and us as humans when we condone it. As she left, she remarked with a sigh, "These are such difficult decisions, difficult to understand. I am glad I don't have to make them." I restrained myself, resisting the temptation to shake her and ask, "What is it about 'thou shalt not kill' that you don't understand?"


We may be called to pay a price for our faith. But, after all, isn't that what being a Christian is all about? We are followers of Christ, the God become man who lived among us, doing what was different from what society proclaimed as acceptable and who with his life paid for preaching the gospel of love. We hope that we will not be asked to pay the ultimate price as he was. However, as Jesus told us, although the path will not be easy, the burden will be light. "Come, follow me" is a small price for us to pay.


1 For the ANA policy on "The Right to Accept or Reject an Assignment" see[Context Link]


2 RN Magazine 62, no. 3 (March 1999), p. 44. [Context Link]


3 "American Nurses Association Supports Veto of Late-Term Abortion Bill," April 11, 1996, ANA press release. [Context Link]