Cover Story

Compulsory 'choice'

Pro-abortion lobbies are fighting to force nurses and other health-care workers to participate in abortions. Pro-life health-care workers are fighting back

Issue: "30 years of destruction," Jan. 18, 2003

FOR 10 YEARS, NO ONE SEEMED TO mind that Janice Turner was a pro-life nurse. Her job at the Women's Clinic in Marion County, Ore., included reaching out to women undergoing high-risk pregnancies, making house calls to expectant teenagers and single moms, and counseling clients on their legal options, including abortion and "emergency contraception."

But Ms. Turner, a Christian who believes life begins at conception, refused to refer clients for abortion, or to dispense "morning-after pills"-the so-called "contraceptive" that actually snuffs out budding life. Although Ms. Turner's supervisor didn't agree with her abortion views, she respected Ms. Turner's right to follow her conscience.

But then a new supervisor came along. And in July 2001, after a decade on the job, Ms. Turner was fired. That's because, according to a federal suit Ms. Turner filed with the help of the Rutherford Institute, the new supervisor believed Ms. Turner's religious objection to abortion made her "not a complete nurse."

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Ms. Turner is one of an increasingly vocal number of health-care professionals being forced to choose between career and conscience. As the doctrine of "choice" has failed to sustain long-term expansion of abortion, Roe enthusiasts have appealed to courts and regulators to force health-care workers, public and private medical facilities, and even insurers to participate in abortions.

"Abortion advocates want to make health-care workers' rights of conscience subordinate to the public 'right' to abortion," said Brigham Young University law professor Lynn Wardle, an expert on medical right-of-conscience issues. "It is an irony that this all developed out of the rhetoric of private choice."

Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act requires employers to generally "accommodate" the religious beliefs of workers. Only one state, Illinois, specifically protects the right of all health-care industry players to refuse to participate in, or fund, any medical procedure on religious or moral grounds. Forty-five states permit some providers and institutions to abstain from participation in abortion services only. But many state laws exclude certain providers, such as abortion-objecting pharmacists; only Arkansas and South Dakota protect their right not to dispense abortifacients such as the "morning-after pill." Four states-Alabama, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and Vermont-provide no conscience protection for any health-care worker or institution.

Meanwhile, a 30-year-old federal conscience-protection law may provide the best sanctuary for public health workers like Janice Turner. The Church Amendment to the Public Health Service Extension Act of 1973, passed six months after the Supreme Court Roe vs. Wade decision, created a federal law exempting publicly funded institutions or individuals with religious or moral objections from performing abortions and sterilizations. Rutherford Institute attorneys cited the Church Amendment in their pleadings against the Marion County clinic that fired Ms. Turner. Although attorneys for the county still contend their clients did not violate Ms. Turner's rights of conscience, they now want to settle out of court.

Frank Manion, a Kentucky-based attorney with the pro-life American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), says the number of health-care professionals contacting his organization about abortion-related right-of-conscience issues has grown over the past three years from about one call every two months to at least a call per week. He said the ACLJ hears most frequently from nurses, as more nurses who are asked to dispense morning-after pills realize that the drug doesn't prevent pregnancy, but ends it.

"We do hear from some doctors, but they are typically in the minority because they usually are in a position to set their own terms of employment," Mr. Manion said. "Nurses and other health-care workers with less clout are typically not in that position."

Nurse Michelle Diaz wasn't. When in 1999 Ms. Diaz, 28, took a job at a public health clinic in Riverside, Calif., she didn't know the morning-after pill was already a lightning rod there. She also didn't know the medication isn't a contraceptive, but an abortifacient that prevents a developing embryo from implanting in the uterine wall. Ms. Diaz, a Christian who objects to abortion, had been working at the clinic for only a few weeks when a manager asked her to dispense the drug to a patient: "It wasn't until many weeks afterward that I realized what I had been asked to do-and what I clearly wasn't going to be doing in the future."

It turned out that the other four nurses with whom Ms. Diaz worked had already refused on religious grounds to hand out morning-after pills. When clinic managers learned that their newest hire, Ms. Diaz, wouldn't dispense them either, a temper-flaring, door-slamming war erupted between the nurses and management. Clinic managers tried to close the issue by writing position descriptions for the objecting nurses that required them to dispense emergency contraception.


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