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Nurses for life

National | Frontline medical professionals are turning against abortion, but survey shows increased polarization

Issue: "Not-so-smart bombs," April 24, 1999

The abortion views of registered nurses in the United States have, over the last decade, undergone major reconstructive surgery, according to a survey released last month. RN Magazine, a professional nursing journal, reported that 61 percent of nurses who responded to the magazine's decennial ethics survey said they would not work on an OB/GYN unit where any abortions are performed. That's a statistical flip-flop from the same study conducted in 1988, when the majority of nurses, 52 percent, said they would work on an OB/GYN unit where children were aborted.

The mail-in survey, which tallied the views of 743 hospital-based registered nurses, included other striking data. For example, nearly two-thirds of respondents said partial-birth abortion should be outlawed. And the number of OB/GYN/newborn nurses who say they would work on a unit where any abortion procedures are performed is now just 37 percent, a 15 percentage point decline from 1988.

Connie Jarvis, a Fairfield, Ohio-based RN, attributes this attitude shift to the positive impact of pro-life education efforts. "I think more nurses now understand that an abortion actually takes the life of an unborn child," Ms. Jarvis said.

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Narrative responses from some survey respondents seem to bear this out. "I cannot accept the deliberate killing of a human being," wrote a registered nurse from Iowa. Said a Delaware RN: "I have deep feelings, which are very hard to hide, about people who throw life away because they were irresponsible or because their lives have been inconvenienced." A New York RN responded: "It's difficult to care for people who refuse family planning methods-or fail to use them correctly-and then have three or more abortions." According to RN Magazine associate editor Marissa Ventura, many survey respondents also "expressed strong feelings against those who use abortion as a form of birth control."

The survey also showed a decline in the number of nurses who would work on OB/GYN units where abortions are prohibited. In 1988, 80 percent of nurses said they would do so; that figure fell to 65 percent in 1998. In an RN article (with pro-abortion undercurrents) analyzing the survey results, Ms. Ventura theorized that some nurses might be setting aside their own convictions about abortion to protect declining access to abortion services. She does agree, though, that the survey data may simply show that more nurses now hold pro-life views than did in 1988.

But Kathy Simmonds of the Abortion Access Project of Massachusetts said the rise in the number of nurses holding pro-life views (she called it a "decline" in pro-choice views) is rooted in a history of misinformation and ignorance. Saying she was "hesitant to be definitive" since she hadn't personally read the survey results, Ms. Simmonds, a registered nurse, proceeded to be definitive about why she thinks nurses' attitudes toward abortion have changed. She says, for example, that many nursing schools have historic ties to the Catholic church and that many nurses working in hospitals today have no first-hand knowledge of pre-Roe vs. Wade women "suffering and dying because of their desperate efforts to end an unwanted pregnancy."

Ms. Simmonds also hazards another guess: "The violent and harassing tactics of those who are opposed to abortion" have injected fear into the hearts of nurses who would otherwise support a woman's "right to choose." But Connie Jarvis says that view does not reflect the reality that nurses are often "on the front lines," involved in direct patient care, and working in high-risk areas and situations: "I don't really think fear of violence or retaliation has any bearing on these numbers."

Nor does April Holley of the National Right to Life Committee: "To say that fear of violence is the driving force behind the rejection of abortion is ridiculous. Nurses overwhelmingly support a ban on partial-birth abortion because they reject abortion. If nurses feared violence from pro-lifers, certainly they would not demonstrate this fear by taking a pro-life position."

Instead, Ms. Holley says, the data mirror a larger trend toward pro-life sentiments among Americans in general. For example, a survey commissioned by the pro-abortion Center for Gender Equality and released this January revealed that the majority of American women, 53 percent, feel abortion should be illegal except in cases of rape, incest, and saving the life of the mother. And a survey of college freshmen conducted annually by UCLA and the American Council on Education shows that support among freshman for legal abortion has fallen 14 percent since 1990.

Ms. Jarvis believes the rise in new pro-life views among RNs may be working in concert with an increase in the professional standing of nurses in the medical community at large. "Many of the nurses I know have always held pro-life beliefs, but they haven't been vocal about it" because they were once considered second-tier medical workers whose opinions weren't valued. "Over the last 10 years, though, nurses have gained more respect and a bigger platform. Now they're wanting to stand up and be heard, and to let people know they believe that abortions kill children."

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