This article originally appeared in the
Reproduced with permission.
. . .a recent contract cancellation at B.C.
Women’s Hospital, as well as developments in other provinces, raises
doubt as to whether nurses do in fact enjoy unfettered freedoms of
conscience and religion. . . Nurses get apprehensive when asked whether
They remain anxious, but Canadian nurses seem to have their right to
conscientious objection worked out, for the most part.
The nurses’ code of ethics and their collective agreements recognize
their right to withdraw from giving care that offends their morality, as
long as the patients they tend are placed in others’ care.
What’s more, when they apply for work, nurses have the opportunity to
state which medical practices offend their morality or religious
convictions, allowing management to hire and staff accordingly.
However, a recent contract cancellation at B.C. Women’s Hospital, as well
as developments in other provinces, raises doubt as to whether nurses do in
fact enjoy unfettered freedoms of conscience and religion.
Nurses get apprehensive when asked whether they do. They’re cautious when
it comes to sharing information, whether about themselves or colleagues. In
the course of this report, several backed away from interviews they’d
previously committed to, ultimately making it difficult to determine how
much of their fearfulness is due to rumour or innuendo, and how much is fear
of the consequences of being a whistle blower.
Barb Pesut, director of nursing at evangelical Trinity Western University
in Langley, said she has never seen a nurse’s freedoms of conscience and
religion violated during her career.
“This is not to say,” she continued, “that there is no moral distress in
nursing, because there is, but most of it doesn’t surround the biggies such
Abortion is a practice that nurses can avoid by working in other areas,
and nurses who can’t cope with death and dying avoid hospice care.
B.C. Nurses Union acting president Andy Wiebe told The B.C. Catholic that
her union recognizes its members’ freedoms of religion and conscience and
has in fact supported members facing discipline for conscientious objection.
Citing confidentiality, she refused to provide documentation.
However, Wiebe admitted that conscientious objectors in the province’s
more remote hospitals might have a harder time because it’s often difficult
to find replacement staff in small towns.
Under the current agreement, nurses in conflict need only contact their
union steward, who then notifies management. If the grievance can’t be
settled, labour relations staff get involved.
The quality of help the union gives its members is not dependent on the
morality of its stewards, Wiebe said. If, for example, a nurse were being
disciplined for refusing to do abortions, a union steward who is
pro-abortion would refer her to a more sympathetic steward.
“Under the labour code, we are bound to provide services that are not
discriminatory. If there’s a conflict, the steward will declare herself in
conflict and another steward will step in.”
Pesut and Weibe both pointed out that most grievances have nothing to do
with conscientious objection, but rather with safety or working conditions.
When it comes to discussing conscientious objection, however, the nursing
profession tends toward silence.
Nurses who were contacted made a point of explaining that they work in a
specialty posing no ethical dilemmas. Some simply didn’t return phone calls,
while others avoided direct questions by referring to situations experienced
by nurses in Ontario, or at Calgary’s Foothills Hospital, or the janitorial
company that lost its cleaning contract recently with B.C. Women’s Hospital
Similarly, nursing management tend to claim that freedom of conscience
conflicts arise because nurses don’t reveal their objector status when they
are being hired.
In the publicized cases, however, ineffectual management seems to have
been as much a factor in the disputes as was nurses who don’t reveal their
Cecilia von Dehn, a well known pro-life nurse, was but marginally
involved in a company that lost its cleaning contract at B.C. Women’s
Hospital in Vancouver. Hospital management cited the retired nurse’s well
publicized pro-life work and her ownership of less than five per cent of the
company, which is controlled by her husband, Ulf von Dehn, as sufficient
reason to cancel the contract out of ostensible concerns for security.
No other pro-life staff have been fired from the hospital, however, and
to date, numerous talented pro-life medical students, nurses, doctors, and
researchers remain at work at the hospital.
The Hospital Employees Union played a role in the cancellation of the
company’s contract, and the cleaning company is suing the union for
The situation was different at Foothills Hospital in Calgary, where
management decided to move late-term abortions into the maternity ward,
telling delivery nurses they had to assist in them. These drug-induced
“still births” often result in live births. If the doctors who are supposed
to deliver the aborted babies are late, nurses have to deliver them; and if
they’re born alive, they can survive for extended periods, requiring
comforting; however, no feeding or other medical care is given.
The nurses, who were Baptist, Canadian Reformed, Pentecostal, Missionary,
and Alliance, as well as Catholic, complained to Alberta Report
newsmagazine, claiming that management had given them no choice in the
One nurse was quoted as saying, “These are not little lima beans with
feet. These so-called genetic terminations are babies. If you were holding
their heads in the palm of your hand, their little feet would reach your
elbow. We’re crossing the line.”
In Ontario, after a re-organization, management ordered very experienced
obstetric and neo-natal nurses at Markham-Stoufville Hospital to assist in
abortions. Again, no choice was offered. Eight nurses filed a complaint with
the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Five years later, in 1999, the hospital reached an out-of-court
settlement, agreeing that nurses may opt out of doing abortions and that it
is up to the hospital, not the dissenting nurses, to find replacements for
In Thunder Bay, Ont., in 1997, Bishop Frederick Henry spoke out for
operating nurses who transferred from St. Joseph’s Catholic Hospital to
Thunder Bay Regional, where they were required to do abortions.
Management claimed that the nurses knew that they would be required to
assist in abortions, but Bishop Henry pointed out that management’s wording
of the Letter of Understanding was ambiguous: the nurses interpreted it to
mean that every effort to accommodate conscientious objectors would be made,
while management claimed it meant nurses could be required to do abortions.
“Don’t they care about the moral principles of their employees?” asked
Bishop Henry in a letter to the editor. “Are they anti-Catholic?”
Sean Murphy of the Protection of Conscience Project pointed out that
management reacted sympathetically to a nurse who was emotionally and
physically sickened when exposed to abortions, but ignored two others who
objected for moral reasons. They had no confidence in management to hear
their concerns, so they complained to Bishop Henry, who made their concerns
known to the hospital administrators.