N.J.'s 'Nurses of Conscience'

Congressman Chris Smith calls on a New Jersey hospital to stop its “illegal and unethical” practice of requiring nurses to assist at abortions.

NEWARK, N.J. — The head of the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus warned that a university hospital in his state is in violation of federal and state conscience-protection laws.

And the attorney for 12 nurses suing the hospital vowed to fight a new policy that requires all nurses to train for and assist in abortions.

Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., and Matt Bowman, legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, joined some of the 12 nurses at a press conference Nov. 14 outside of University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark, N.J.

The nurses are suing the University of Medicine and Dentistry after a change in policy requires them to participate in abortions. Previously, nurses had the option to participate or not.

The plaintiffs in the case, Danquah v. University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, make up the majority of the 16 nurses who work in the hospital’s same-day surgery unit, where abortions are performed. They pointed out at the press conference that they come from a variety of faith traditions but all are opposed to abortion on religious and moral grounds.

One, Fe Vinoya, a nurse for 21 years, said she and her fellow plaintiffs “have dedicated our lives to helping patients.”

“We all have the same conviction that we do not want to help in the killing that happens in abortion,” she said.

 Vinoya, a native of the Philippines, identifies herself as Christian and pro-life.

“Our managers told us very clearly that all same-day surgery unit nurses must immediately begin training in and assisting abortion patients, including all aspects of those patients’ care during their visit,” she said. “They did this in spite of our repeated effort to tell them we had religious and moral objections. They said very clearly that if we did not assist we would face termination.”

The University of Medicine and Dentistry insists it does not force nurses to participate in abortions, and a spokesman attending the Nov. 14 press conference distributed a brief statement to reporters.

“No nurse is compelled to have direct involvement in, and/or attendance in the room at the time of, a procedure to which she or he objects based on his/her cultural values, ethics and/or religious beliefs,” said the statement. “The university is in full compliance with all applicable state and federal laws and is confident its position will be vindicated when the court gives this matter a full hearing.”

That hearing will be Dec. 5 in U.S. District Court for the District of New Jersey, where Judge Jose Linares already granted a temporary injunction against the implementation of the hospital’s new policy.

Bowman said the hospital was preparing to challenge that injunction and was to file a brief on Nov. 21.

University spokesman Jeffrey Tolvin said the institution “doesn’t want to go beyond the statement.”

Vinoya disputed that statement.

“I, myself, and all 12 of us have been told that we must assist abortion cases, even though we object,” she said.

Conscience Protection

The university’s statement seems to allow for a nurse’s compulsory assistance to an abortion patient before or after the actual procedure takes place, and Bowman, answering a question at the press conference, insisted that nurses should still be allowed to opt out of any pre-operative or post-operative roles, as those would be part of an abortion case.

In a follow-up interview, Bowman said the university has “artificially defined an ‘abortion’ in an microscopically narrow way, and forces nurses to assist everything else right up to it and after it in violation of” conscience-protection laws.

Congressman Smith called UMDNJ’s new policy “highly unethical” and “blatantly illegal,” violating both federal and state laws. He said that in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s statement in Doe v. Bolton that conscientious objectors in health care need to be protected against coerced participation in abortions, Congress enacted the 1974 Church Amendment. The law, which is still in effect, prohibits hospitals that receive funding under certain federal laws from discriminating on the basis of a health-care professional’s refusal to “perform or assist in the performance of … abortion on the grounds that his performance or assistance in the performance of … abortion would be contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

“To further protect conscience rights, the U.S. Congress enacted the Hyde-Weldon conscience law in 2005 that bars funds appropriated under the entire Health and Human Services Appropriations Act to any federal agency or program or to a state or local government if they engage in discrimination by violating conscience rights,” Smith said.

New Jersey legislation also states that “no person shall be required to perform or assist in the performance of abortion,” he said.

Smith said that UMDNJ’s new policy jeopardizes its federal funding.

“Because the nurses of conscience recognize the innate value and dignity and preciousness of the child in the womb and have refused to participate or be complicit in an act of violence against a vulnerable child, they are punished,” Smith said.

Part of a Trend?

The Alliance Defense Fund has also been assisting a New York nurse who is fighting her hospital’s requirement that she assist at abortions.

Douglas Johnson, of the National Right to Life Committee, sees the cases as a “subclass of a much broader campaign.”

“There’s a very concerted campaign nationwide to impel health-care providers to participate in abortion and enforce this through a number of different mechanisms,” he said in a phone interview. “Not just individual doctors and nurses, but also hospitals, insurance companies, HMOs, the whole gamut.”

And it’s a campaign that has been in the works for some time, he said. “State and federal laws that shield health-care professionals from participating in abortion have been under assault for a number of years now from groups like the ACLU, who call them refusal clauses,” Johnson said.

Smith said that if withholding part or all of the more than $60 million in federal funds the university receives annually is “the only way to get this hospital to realize they are violating fundamental civil rights ... that is necessary and required.”

Bowman wasn’t sure why the hospital suddenly changed its policy, but said that after the written policy went into effect, the hospital promoted a nurse who had been voluntarily assisting at abortions to assistant nurse manager in the same-day surgery unit and had her implement the policy.

Abortions performed at the hospital include first- and second-trimester abortions and include “cytotec abortions,” in which a woman is given a drug that induces delivery, Bowman said. “What’s happening often is they give the woman the drug to induce labor, and then require these nurses to stay there because they’ll leave them in the unit. The hospital is requiring these nurses to assist throughout the process. All these nurses are asking is that they not have to assist any part of an abortion case.”

Beryl Otieno-Ngoje, a critical-care nurse who has worked for 14 years at UMDNJ, said she had a religious and moral objection to assisting at abortions. “I don’t believe in destroying life,” said Otieno-Ngoje, a Seventh-Day Adventist who was trained as a nurse in her native Kenya. “I’m a nurse to heal and help. This is, like, totally opposed to my belief.”

“It’s a human life they’re trying for us to kill,” added Julita Ching, a Baptist from the Philippines. “We all come from different religious backgrounds, but we all believe in saving life, not killing life.”

Campaign Can't Shake Critics

The Catholic Campaign for Human Development, the U.S. bishops’ anti-poverty program, can’t seem to shake its reputation for funding anti-Catholic organizations. American Life League issued a report recently that was critical of the campaign.