NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The federal contraception mandate has sparked a debate over the free exercise of religious institutions that refuse to provide such services in their employee health plans. But there is another battle brewing: the fight for the conscience rights of health-care professionals who will be asked to facilitate practices that violate their beliefs.

As both President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and market-driven reforms reconfigure the world of health care, nurses — who are already taking over many duties of family practitioners — will be asked to meet with patients to discuss mandated provisions like Plan B, the so-called "morning-after pill." With their jobs on the line, will Catholic nurses stand up for their right to opt out of providing services that violate moral norms or will they bow to pressure?

"The right of the Catholic nurse to refuse to provide mandated contraceptive counseling would very likely be upheld" in the courts, said Dominican Brother Ignatius Perkins, the dean of Aquinas College’s School of Nursing in Nashville, Tenn.

"However, if the nurse works in a health agency that provides such services under the Affordable Care Act, she could risk the loss of her job (and the public reasons provided might be embedded in a host of other peripheral reasons rather than the true reason)," Brother Ignatius added. "And I believe this scenario will occur with increasing frequency."

Brother Ignatius was a keynote speaker at the National Association of Catholic Nurses’ March 1-3 convention, "Catholic Nurses on the Front Lines: Christ’s Ministry in Action." The event is designed to help Catholic nurses remain true to the spiritual and ethical foundations of their chosen vocation.

"We are trying to help the nurses at the front lines of health care to recommit themselves to the purposes for which the ministry exists," said Marie Hilliard, the director of bioethics and public policy at the National Catholic Bioethics Center and a board member of the National Association of Catholic Nurses.

Since the early Church, the suffering of the sick has drawn the compassion and practical assistance of believers, who were inspired by Jesus Christ to care for the whole person and not merely tend to the ailment or disease. The United States became a destination for many European religious orders known for their excellent nursing ministries, and many would establish leading hospitals in the young nation.

Today, it is rare to witness women religious performing nursing duties. But U.S. and foreign-born lay nurses have taken their place. And while some serve at Catholic hospitals with a holistic charism, many others work at secular institutions that perform abortions or discourage the provision of hydration and nutrition for patients suffering from terminal conditions.

Enter the National Association of Catholic Nurses, which seeks to revitalize the spiritual roots of the nursing vocation for any nurse — Catholic or not — who is looking for moral and practical support as he or she labors in a health-care system roiled by unprecedented financial, ethical and political changes.

"Nursing was brought to this country by courageous women and men religious as a ministry. It is that essence for nurses that gives even greater purpose and meaning to how we engage in this ministry," said Hilliard.

"We are hoping to reanimate our association’s historical ties to the wonderful health-care ministries of the religious congregations of this country. So many Catholic nurses practice in diverse secular settings without the charisms that support nursing as a ministry. "

Registered nurse Diana Newman, the president-elect of the National Association of Catholic Nurses, said the organization has about 300 members, who are often involved in local Catholic nurses’ guilds throughout the country.

"The guild contributes a Catholic viewpoint to medicine and health care and tries to foster that viewpoint. Sometimes that perspective gets lost," Newman told the Register. "The Catholic point of view is the primacy and dignity of the person, who is made in the image of God. That teaching predates current nursing science."

(A longer version of this story appeared on