Our Health Care Heroes Deserve More Than Applause and Well-Meaning Demonstrations – Conscience Protections Must Not be Violated

Throughout the current pandemic we’ve been hearing about the tireless efforts of health care workers striving to save lives in sometimes hellish situations, exposing themselves to deadly disease with, all too often, tragic consequences. We’ve seen images of nurses walking through gauntlets of applauding police officers and fire fighters; we’ve seen cities where people emerge from their homes at a certain time each day to ring bells, sing songs, and otherwise make noise to honor the heroic people on the front lines of this devastating plague. Candlelight vigils, balloon releases, gift baskets, prayers – all part of a grateful public’s admittedly inadequate attempt to give thanks. But health care workers deserve much more than balloons and standing ovations. They deserve respect; respect for their status as free moral agents, not cogs in a giant health care machine. Such respect must include acknowledging and defending their right to not participate in certain “health care” procedures that many nurses and doctors hold to be beyond the pale of human decency, participation in which would violate their fundamental moral, religious, and ethical principles. Chief among such procedures is, of course, abortion. It is, perhaps, incredible but nonetheless true that here at the ACLJ, even during this pandemic, we continue to hear from nurses and other health care professionals who are being threatened with the loss of their livelihoods – not because of budget cuts related to the current crisis – but because of their stance on the sanctity of life. One nurse with over forty-years’ experience in a small community hospital was told that even her private expression to colleagues of her opposition to abortions being performed in her facility could result in her termination. Another professional is being forced to sign a form that, while purportedly recognizing a conscience based opt-out right, contains so many easily abused exceptions that it amounts to little more than a target on his back. In both these cases we are taking action, behind the scenes for now – these are real people with real dependents who depend on them for the roofs over their heads – but we are prepared to go public if and when the situations warrant it. And in still another case, this time from a nurse who was deceived into participating in a horrific late-term abortion, we have filed a Complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights. Our client watched horror-struck as what she was told was a routine and morally non-problematic post-miscarriage procedure turned out to be the abortion of a 6-months’ gestational age infant. The hospital she worked at, which had previously had a no-abortions policy when she was hired, had changed its policy following a merger to allow abortions. But nobody in the administration had bothered to tell the nursing staff of this change. After all, they’re just cogs in the health care machine. To this day, our client suffers flashbacks of a dying, struggling infant looking at her from a metal “specimen” dish. But when (following this procedure) she informed her supervisor that she could not participate in any future abortions due to her religious beliefs, she was unceremoniously told “you have no choice.” What if she were to find another staff member who was willing to take her place? Response: “No. I guess you need to look for another job.” That kind of response to a health care hero’s simple request to be respected as a full moral agent is, unfortunately, all too common. It’s also illegal under a host of federal and state employment and conscience-protecting anti-discrimination laws. One such law, the so-called Church Amendment, ties a health care entity’s receipt of federal funding to its acknowledgement of and respect for the right of health care professionals to be free from an employer’s imposition of job requirements that run contrary to the moral or religious convictions of nurses, doctors, medical students, and others in health care. It’s the Church Amendment that’s the legal basis for the Complaint we filed on behalf of the nurse whose traumatizing experience we described above. And while that law has been on the books since the 1970s, it’s only recently been given some additional teeth by the establishment of the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division in the federal Department of HHS. Now that our nurse’s tragic story has been filed with HHS, we’re hoping that steps will be taken to ensure that no other nurse has to be subjected to such cruel disregard for a nurse’s basic dignity and rights. We’ve already been successful in bringing to bear the full power of the federal government on a Vermont hospital found by HHS to have violated the Church Amendment. In that case, a nurse was also deceived into thinking she was being sent into a non-problematic procedure that turned out to be an abortion. Again, the same callous and cavalier disregard for nurses as persons with consciences just as important as those of any doctor or hospital administrator, and immortal souls even more precious than any health care conglomerate’s bottom line was shown. If we’re serious about showing our appreciation for our health care heroes, we need to respect them all the time, not just during world-wide health care emergencies. Whether it’s respecting their right to not participate in procedures that go against their moral or religious beliefs, safeguarding their right to speak out about their views on abortion , or trying to prevent Planned Parenthood and other abortion purveyors from undoing the mosaic of conscience protections available to these heroes, the ACLJ will continue to stand with those on the front lines.