South African nurse denied position
Gauteng Dept. of Health: Kopanong Hospital
The following account is drawn from the
her civil suit and the minutes
of a hospital
Magdalena Charles1 trained from 1988 to 1992 Coronation Nursing College and qualified as a registered nurse.
In June, 1995 she successfully completed a one year course in
Theatre Nursing at the Military Hospital in Pretoria. The following year
she was promoted to Senior Registered Nurse.
From January, 1997, except during her three pregnancies, she was continuously
employed as a Theatre Scrub Sister at the
Vereeniging Hospital, now
the Kopanong Hospital, becoming Chief Professional
Nurse in 1999.
Staff at the Hospital were told in
February, 2000 that terminations of
(‘TOPs’) were about to start in Ward 12. Sister Charles was among
health care workers at the hospital who opposed abortion for reasons of
presented a petition on the subject
to Dr. Tshabalala on 25
February 2001, Sister Charles advised hospital
management in writing that she had become a Jehovah's Witness, and did not wish
to assist with uterine evacuations connected with abortions. She noted
that another nursing sister had agreed to be called out to replace her should
she be on duty when such a case was referred to the theatre. She also
suggested that this situation could be managed by making a second sisters
available to assist with the procedure in the theatre during the day, and having
one on call after 1900. The suggestions clearly indicate that she was not
seeking to "impede access" to the procedure, but seeking accommodation of her
own conscientious convictions in a manner that would not interfere with the
operation of the hospital.
Thereafter, Sister Charles came to feel increasingly intimidated by what she
perceived as ill-feelings toward her harboured by hospital management. Consistent with her perception, in
August and in September,
2001 she was forced to participate in abortions
despite her protests.
19 February 2003, Mrs. C. Jacobs ordered her to assist with an
abortion for a patient who arrived during her night shift. She did so
against her will, and the following day she contacted Doctors for Life
International for help. DFLI faxed her a Declaration of Health
Professional, which she completed to document her
conscientious objection to induced
abortion; she submitted it the same day. She also met the
hospital's chief executive officer,
Mr. Madonsela, who told her
that her superiors should not have forced her to scrub for the case.
It appears that hospital management decided to deal with the 'problem' posed
by Sister Charles by holding a meeting of theatre staff to discuss TOP's.
The minutes of the meeting suggest that a number of the participants had
consulted one another previously, and that the 'discussion' was contrived solely
to bring the weight of numbers and authority to bear against Sister Charles.
The minutes record only one comment from her, reflecting her assertion that she
felt "very intimidated." The real point of the
meeting was to suppress the exercise of
Sister Charles' freedom of conscience. It was summed up by Sister Neria,
who called for a conclusion to the meeting by asking, "What is the final answer? Is everybody scrubbing
for evacuation now?"
The answer, given by the nurse in charge of the theatre, was that Sister
Charles would assist at abortions, and the subject was not to be discussed
Further conflict was averted because Sister Charles, again pregnant, asked to
be reassigned the following month to avoid stress. After she
returned from maternity leave in May, 2004, she was not placed on the theatre
roster. The hospital ignored requests from Sister Charles and Doctors for
Life to reinstate her or to give written reasons to justify its position.
As a result of the affronts to her dignity and emotional and psychological
suffering inflicted upon her, Sister Charles finally submitted her resignation
on 30 July, 2004. She has launched a civil suit against the hospital.
Update: 2 October, 2006It is reported that, after a delay of two years, Sister Charles has been granted
leave to take her case against the Health Department to the Labour Appeals
1. Registered nurses in South Africa are referred to as "nursing sisters" and
addressed as "Sister." The title does not imply any religious affiliation.