A group of nurses in Ontario is finding that the principle of choice doesn’t always work both ways on the abortion issue.
The five nurses have filed a complaint with the Ontario Human Rights Commission on religious grounds after they were put in the position of having to participate in abortion procedures at Markham Stouffville hospital, just outside Toronto. One of them has filed a civil lawsuit claiming damages of almost $1 million against the hospital, alleging she was additionally subjected to harassment and excessive monitoring of her work which led to the taking of a prolonged medical leave.

The nurses’ plight was spotlighted in a recent column by the Toronto Star’s Rosie DiManno.

The saga began in 190 when six labour and delivery nurses were recruited from a nearby hospital in Scarborough, which did not perform abortions, to Markham Stouffville. The nurses said they made their moral and religious oppositions to abortion clear and received verbal assurances that Markham Stouffville did not, and would not require them to participate in the procedure.

Policy change

In 1993, however, the hospital changed its policy to allow for second trimester abortions in which labour and delivery nurses would be involved in administrating treatment. Some of the recruited nurses objected and were offered transfers to non-obstetric units. Five of them then filed the complaints with Ontario Human Rights Commission.

Ailene George, the nurse who has filed the lawsuit insisted she is “not a fanatic” on the abortion issue but simply wants to be respected for her views.

”There was a clear understanding when we hired that we would not have to perform abortions,” she said. “We went (to Markham Stouffville) on the premise that they would not do any second trimester abortions. Then they changed their policy so we get offered these transfers but it’s a take-it-or-leave-it situation. They’re the ones in the driver’s seat.

Marilyn Bruner, chief executive officer of the hospital said that any nurse must be prepared to do the “job” required.

“They’ve pushed me out of a job. And I can’t get another one,” said George, who is still technically employed by the hospital, but is no longer working or receiving disability benefits. When she was pronounced physically capable of returning to her job, George refused the transfer that had been offered.

Mary-Lynn McPherson, national co-ordinator of Canadian Nurses for life in Ottawa, said it’s difficult to gauge how often nurses in general are placed in the position of having to participate in abortions against their consciences.
“Nobody likes doing abortions,” she noted. “Who wants to pick up baby pieces and put them together to make sure the body is all there? …That job generally falls to nurses.”

“I think at this point it’s important to note that nurses, generally speaking, have no protection,” she added. “Often what happens is nurses are required to perform any health service – in other words, if you wont do everything the hospital wants you to do, they won’t hire you.

”It’s really quite scary that nurses don’t have this protection. It leaves them quite vulnerable, because what will happen eventually is that the only nurses employed will be those who kill patients or are involved in the killing of patients.”

McPherson said nurses are sometimes places in the position of having to participate in abortions even though their regular assignments have nothing to do with the procedure. “In many hospitals, although you may work on a particular floor…should they need help on another floor and your floor is well staffed, they have the authority (to move you).”

“Most nurses are trained to be fairly passive and acceptive,” she added. “And because nursing is the kind of job it is and there are lots of nurses, it’s not as if you’re indispensable.”

Canadian Nurses for Life has been trying without success to have a conscience clause enacted in law which would allow nurses to exempt themselves from certain procedures, such as abortions. But rapid developments in reproductive technologies are expanding the list of procedures nurses may find objectionable.

“Science is advancing so quickly and there are many areas, particularly in the field of reproduction…in which Christians and (people of) other religions would find it difficult to work,” said McPherson. It doesn’t just come down to abortion. It extends much further than that.”

She said she will watch the progress of the Ontario nurses’ human rights complaint and George’s lawsuit closely because she knows of no nurse who has taken her concerns to such levels before. “We’ve never been able to test this because we’ve never been able to go that far. It’s extremely stressful and, besides that, you’re out of a job. Who’s going to pay for it while you’re out of a job?”

Dr. Robert Pankratz, president of the 5,500-member Canadian Physicians for Life organization, said pro-life physicians also find themselves in ethical quandaries, during the course of their work, though in different contexts.

“There are certainly examples,” he said. “One of my colleagues was in a small town in the Prairies. He wasn’t issuing referrals for abortions when people were requesting them, He received a complaint from a patient and a letter from the College (of Physicians and Surgeons) …which told him that in a small locality like that, he was under an obligation to refer. That went against his grain and served as one of the reasons he moved away.”

‘Nasty’ letter

Pankratz also recalled an incident in B.C. when another colleague wouldn’t dispense an abortifacient morning-after pill to a woman whose mother was a lawyer. The physician then received a “nasty” letter from the mother and was asked to explain himself before the licensing body for physicians in B.C. after the woman sent a copy of the letter to it.

On another front, Pankratz believes pressure is being placed on pro-life students applying for medical schools by subjecting them to hypothetical questions which probe their stance on the abortion issue such as “would you do an abortion? How would you counsel a single woman who is pregnant and in financial hardship?”
“They paint a picture and try to determine if this individual is going to be ‘open’ – that is, pro-choice,” said Pankratz.

He said he is finding an increasing amount of pressure being exerted by overseeing medical bodies on physicians who manifest a Christian or pro-life orientation. “We’re getting more information from the College directed at doctors which is stating between the lines: ‘You’d better be careful if you want to pray with your patients or do anything which might be considered Christian because we’re looking gout for you guys and we’re going to try and nail you to the wall.”

But Physicians for Life doesn’t plan to change its course, he said. “we will continue to prescribe only what we see as reasonable.”