Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

South African nurse denied position

Vereeniging, South Africa (2004)

Gauteng Dept. of Health: Kopanong Hospital

Sean Murphy*
Note:  The following account is drawn from the pleading submitted in her civil suit and the minutes of a hospital theatre meeting.

Sister Wilhelmien 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 pregnancy (‘TOPs’) were about to start in Ward 12.  Sister Charles was among  health care workers at the hospital who opposed abortion for reasons of conscience.  They presented a petition on the subject to Dr. Tshabalala on 25 May 2000.

In 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.

On 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 again.

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, 2006

It 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 Court.

1.  Registered nurses in South Africa are referred to as "nursing sisters" and addressed as "Sister."  The title does not imply any religious affiliation.