Nurses Refuse to Assist Abortions

December 3, 2011

Political Theory

Yes, the incredibly controversial topic of abortion is back. But this time it is not a discussion of women’s rights, it is a discussion about the rights of those who care for the women receiving abortions, the nurses.

On October 31st, twelve nurses sued the University of Medicine & Dentistry of New Jersey, saying that the hospital was violating federal and state laws by announcing that nurses would now have to care for patients receiving abortions regardless of their feelings about the procedure. U.S. Representative Chris Smith (R-N.J.) attended a recent conference in support of the nurses claiming that the hospital’s actions were “highly unethical and blatantly illegal”. [1] 

Nurses speaking at conference concerning lawsuit filed against University

Just to give you a little background, in February of this year, President Obama rescinded most of a very contentious Bush-era regulation concerning the rights of medical works to refuse aid. Many thought this was shielding workers that refused to participate in certain medical procedures like providing birth control pills, caring for gay men with AIDS or performing in-vitro fertilization. The public felt that these regulations were unclear, too broad, and allowed members of the health care community not directly involved in the procedures (such as receptionists) to refuse service. This rule led to controversial events such as pharmacists refusing to fill prescriptions for Plan B contraceptive pills. However, President Obama left intact the “conscience clause”. This clause provides protection to doctors and nurses who do not want to preform abortions or sterilizations because of their religious or moral convictions. [2]

While I believe that the hospital is in plain violation of this clause, I wonder about the legitimacy of the conscience clause in the first place. Ackelsberg and Shanley in “Privacy, Publicity, and Power” touch on reproductive rights and family rights. They say, “many women claim the right to use birth control or obtain an abortion as a right to privacy”. [3] Ackelsberg and Shanley point out that reproductive rights and the care for children are very much involved with the argument about whether family life, or which part of family life, is private or public.

So, how does this extend to those who are meant to care for the women exercising what they believe to be a right to privacy? Does having a moral or religious objection to a procedure mean that these nurses can be excused from their duty? One can say that the nurses are actually obligated, through their medical oath, to keep personal matters from their practice.  It can become a complicated question as to whether which patient comes first to the nurses, the mother or the child. Can the nurses fully commit to treating the mother-to-be if they are more concerned about the future of the child?

Would Ackelsberg and Shanley believe that a nurse’s job is in the public realm and therefore should not be subjected to their personal objections? Or would they say that nurses are also private citizens and should not be forced to take part in something with which they do not agree?

What are your feelings about the conscience clause? Do you believe that medical workers should be able to refuse service because of religious or moral objections?

The lawsuit is scheduled to be heard in federal court this coming Monday, Decemeber 5th. [3] If you would like to learn more about this issue please visit the links below.


[1] Rob Stein, “New Jersey nurses charge religion discrimination over hospital abortion policy”,, Accessed: 3 Dec 11

[2] Rob Stein, “Obama administration replaces controversial ‘conscience’ regulation for heath-care workers”,, Accessed: 3 Dec 11

[3] Samantha Henry, “NJ nurses claim they’re still being forced to assist abortion even as lawsuit heads to court”,, Accessed: 3 Dec 11

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5 Comments on “Nurses Refuse to Assist Abortions”

  1. bmjasper Says:

    This post presents a really interesting issue. I, personally, believe that if anything, the status of doctors and nurses means that they should never do anything considered unethical or against their consciences. Should the healthcare profession turn into one where doctors have to do whatever a patient asks of them? Many medical schools dedicate a portion of their interviewing process to questions concerning medical ethics and beliefs to ensure that their future students have the proper morals. If a medical school only accepted students who would preform abortions, distribute plan-B pills, and abide by whatever their patient asks for, then what would that say about our healthcare system? I think it would turn our brightest minds into mindless machines. Humans have consciences. It is completely unethical to strip doctors and nurses of using them. While I do believe that doctors should be able to refuse to perform procedures they find unethical, the moral oath, which you mentioned, demands that doctors refer patients to a willing physician in order to ensure the proper healthcare of their patients.

  2. kaitlinlapka Says:

    I personally think that doctors, nurses, and medical staff are there to help and assist the patient. If the patient wants an abortion, the nurses should help them and do their job. Many other jobs are like this. Lawyers represent people regardless of how they feel as well. This is the American system of justice and law, and I think it should apply to medical professions as well. If it is legal and the choice of the patient, it is their right to have the procedure done. What if you walked into a classroom and a teacher taught you religious beliefs of their own as standard. What if they gave you textbooks on God and religious principles, and promoted practices of not separating church and state? This is against the law, but they believe it and want to teach it to you. This would not be tolerated. If nurses didn’t give you abortion procedures, even though abortion is legal, simply because they believed otherwise, this would be wrong too. They have no right to omit medical help to you.
    However, I believe if someone feels so strongly against abortions that they would refuse them to women seeking them, they should not be working in a place to administer abortions. If they have no other choice, they should give you another local doctor or referral for someone who will help you. But in my opinion, this is in extreme cases. If the nurse will not give out abortions, work in a different part of the hospital, get another job, etc.

  3. luniho Says:

    I see the moral implications posed here for nurses who consider themselves pro life, or along lines that discourage these other controversial procedures, but their jobs require that they care for patients. Providing these services and caring for patients after their procedures is necessary in this field.

    If the professionals in this field cannot in good conscience carry out abortions or sterilizations, they should not be engaged in this particular aspect of health care. Perhaps working in a different ward, such as pediatrics, could address their concerns while still allowing them to participate in the health care field.

    While these procedures are deemed legal, it is reasonable to expect health care professionals to carry out their duties in relation to these treatments. Ackelsberg and Shanley address the complexity of family and reproductive issues, and their often blurred placement as part of the public or private sphere. Religious objections of one individual should not be able to influence the available choices for others. Reproductive issues are extremely personal and should not be treated as an issue up for the debate for the masses regarding the bodies of individuals.

  4. weinben Says:

    I believe that these nurses have a right to refuse their services based on subjective grounds, i.e. their personal ethical concerns on abortion. If they believe they cannot perform or uphold their duties based upon personal or religious preferences then the hospital (who is their employer) cannot force these women into circumstances they find emotionally disturbing and uncomfortable. And to respond to kaitlinlapka, lawyers actually do have the right to refuse their services if they cannot find ground to support a case, these nurses should not be forced to give abortions if they were to mentally and emotionally suffer resulting from their actions. However, most lawyers are privately contracted and serve matters in the private spheres. The hospital these nurses work at is a publically funded institution which is supposed to serve, indiscriminately, the public at large. Abortions are not illegal in New Jersey, and a patient reserves the right to receive one at publically financed hospitals. However, we must remember it is not the hospital, institutionally, refusing to give abortions, but some of its employers, and reiterate that these folk probably are correct in saying the hospital cannot allow them to perform actions they find innately apprehensible. Regarding Acklesberg and Shanley, I believe that they would agree with both that a nurse’s job resides in the public sphere and that also nurses are members of the private sphere and uphold their own personal values and reservations. Thus it becomes an issue of what is more important, the good of the public or private sphere. Perhaps in this case, the private sphere would win, because, although the nurses sign up to serve the public well-being, they cannot be coerced to serve and administer treatments they do not morally comply with, because that is illegal and immoral, itself.

  5. rachdavidson Says:

    This dilemma reminds me of a Private Practice episode that I recently watched. A young muslim girl came to one of the doctors asking to be “re-virginized.” She claimed she had been raped and had an arranged marriage back home. Supposedly, in her culture, she would not be allowed to be married if she wasn’t a virgin, despite the circumstances. It was later revealed that the woman hadn’t been raped at all, but had actually fallen in love with an american who she was sexually active with. Addison, the doctor, discovered all this information, and then had to decide whether to still do the procedure on the girl. The thing is, it wasn’t the doctors place to decide. A doctor is not a moral consultant. They simply have to do their job, no judgement, no questions asked. In the end, Addison did not perform the surgery, and I don’t think this was the right move. It is the girls place to decide, and even if the doctor didn’t agree with it, it was what the patient wanted. Thus, I do not think it is fair for the nurses to select the types of patients they want to care for. Even if they are against abortions, their job is to make sure that all their patients are okay.

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