A dozen nurses in New Jersey have rekindled the contentious debate over when health-care workers can refuse to play a role in caring for women getting abortions.
In a lawsuit filed in federal court Oct. 31, 12 nurses charge that the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey violated state and federal laws by abruptly announcing in September that nurses would have to help with abortion patients before and after the procedure, reversing a long-standing policy exempting employees who refuse based on religious or moral objections.
“I’m a nurse so I can help people, not help kill, and it just doesn’t seem right to me,” said Beryl Otieno-Negoje, one of the nurses. “No health professional should be forced to choose between assisting abortion or being penalized at work.”
The University Hospital issued a statement that “no nurse is compelled to have direct involvement in, and/or attendance in the room at the time of, a procedure to which she or he objects based on his/her cultural values, ethics and/or religious beliefs.”
“The university is in full compliance with all applicable state and federal laws and is confident its position will be vindicated when the court gives this matter a full hearing,” according to the statement.
For decades, most states, including New Jersey, have had laws protecting nurses and other health-care workers who have moral objections to participating in abortions. In addition, federal laws, such as the Church Amendment, require health-care facilities that receive taxpayer money to permit workers to refuse on ethical grounds.
On Nov. 3, U.S. District Judge Jose L. Linares granted a request for a temporary restraining order barring the hospital from requiring the nurses to undergo training to care for abortion patients, pending a Dec. 5 hearing on the case, which involves 12 of the 16 nurses who work in the hospital’s same-day surgery unit.
Matt Bowman, an attorney representing the nurses, said he had received an e-mail from a lawyer for the hospital arguing that no laws had been broken, because the nurses are required to care for abortion patients only before and after the procedure.
“The pre- and post-operative care provided to these patients is the same nature as that provided to patients who have undergone other surgical procedures,” Edward B. Deutsch of McElry, Deutsch, Mulvaney & Carpenter of Morristown, N.J., wrote in the e-mail.
Bowman argued that requiring the nurses to get involved before and after an abortion violated their right to refuse based on their conscientious objections.
“Federal and state law explicitly prohibits requiring nurses to assist in abortion against their moral and religious convictions,” Bowman said. “All these nurses are asking is that they not have to assist in any part of an abortion case.”
One of the nurses, Fe Esperanza R. Vinoya, said a manager told her: “‘You just have to catch the baby’s head. Don’t worry, it’s already dead.’ ”
“Nursing is a healing profession, and the law protects our right not to provide any services related to abortion,” Vinoya said at a news conference this month.