For almost two decades, it has served as a support and advocate for Canadian pro-life nurses seeking to maintain their ethics in an increasingly anti-life healthcare system. But now, Canadian Nurses for Life faces the end of the line unless new leadership can be found by June 1.
Current national co-ordinator Mary-Lynn McPherson is having to give up her position on account of professional retirement and increasing family demands. So far, no one has firmly stepped forward to take up the reins, although as word has spread throughout Canada’s pro-life community of Nurses for Life’s possible demise, McPherson’s phone has begun ringing with increasing frequency.
“I went away on vacation, not expecting this sort of response,” she said. “There have been a lot of phone calls.”
The national Nurses for Life organization evolved out of the consolidation in the 1990s of numerous local pro-life nurses’ associations that began forming in western Canada initially. Cities such as Winnipeg, Toronto, Sudbury, Peterborough, and chapters in provinces such as Saskatchewan and Alberta, melded into one national group that was spearheaded by the chapter in Ottawa.
Over the years, the unsuccessful quest to win conscience protection for nurses has been a key component of the organization’s work. Making submissions to governments and appearing before parliamentary committees has been another. But giving pro-life nurses a place where they can network with others of like mind and receive moral support may be its most integral function.
“Many nurses need support,” said McPherson. “It’s been difficult, of course, because just trying to get the information out there is very difficult. Schools, colleges and universities that have nursing programs have usually not been very receptive to taking our information and disseminating it to their students.”
This has taken place in tandem with a healthcare environment that has made it more and more difficult for pro-life employees to function happily and effectively.
“I’ve seen it happening and have experienced difficulties myself,” she said. “The problems are becoming more than just being pro-life. I think just being a Christian … in the healthcare workplace is becoming more and more difficult today … They don’t want you to impose your values on anybody, but they feel they can impose theirs on you.”
McPherson said she has heard from some nurses who have given up the profession altogether because they could no longer work in such an anti-life environment.
“And sometimes I’ve heard from nurses who weren’t hired because they were pro-life. It’s very subtly done. They don’t say, ‘We’re not hiring you because you’re pro-life’ … Usually, it’s, ‘You’re not a team player’ … It’s always using very general terms that are difficult to pin down, but you know what they mean.”
“In real life … if you refuse to assist in an abortion in Canada, you can be fired,” she said. “That’s the reality. We’ve been fighting for years … for a conscience clause and have ultimately gotten nowhere … It will be a tragedy if, in 20 years, you can’t be a nurse and pro-life.”
A victory of sorts was achieved in 1999, when eight pro-life nurses at the Markham-Stouffville Hospital just outside Toronto hammered out a last-minute deal to be allowed to refuse to participate in abortions. The nurses had taken the hospital to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, but an agreement was reached just before the hearing was about to begin.
Although that case was a victory for the nurses involved, it was not so much a triumph for the cause of conscience as a whole, said McPherson. For if the matter had proceeded to a commission hearing and the nurses had won, it would have set a legal precedent that may have had to be followed by other Ontario hospitals. As it was, other hospitals, and other nurses at that hospital, were still obligated to participate in objectionable procedures afterwards.
McPherson said Nurses for Life ideally needs as leader a younger person, or someone “young at heart,” with new ideas, who is involved in nursing, able to speak the “nursing language,” is versed in pro-life issues and can get other nurses involved. Some of the regular tasks involve recruiting new members, issuing a quarterly newsletter, handling membership renewals and soliciting finances.
The organization need not remain based in Ottawa, nor must it continue to be led by one person. A committee could just as well, or even preferably, take the reins, she said.
“There is a lot that needs to be done … The duties would basically be to reorganize and incorporate the organization, beef up the membership and try to spread the word literally across the country of how important an organization like this is and how it has to be kept up.”
“Most nurses work weird hours, weird shifts and have families … and other commitments, so it’s very difficult (for them) to commit themselves to this,” she added. “This is not a paid position; it’s a volunteer job … (and) there are times when it’s very busy.”
Courage, strength and experience are qualities that will stand the new leader or leaders in good stead, said McPherson, who is willing to assist as a new management orients itself for a period of time.
“There is certainly no scarcity of issues that someone or some people could get involved in,” said McPherson.
Although a number of inquiries have been received, no firm plans for the new leadership of Canadian Nurses for Life were established by press time. Anyone interested in becoming involved in the new leadership of Canadian Nurses for Life by the June 1 deadline, or who can suggest someone who may be so interested, can get more information by calling McPherson at (613) 728-8125. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.