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Letter on Conscience Rights

[Following is another letter by Bishop F.B. Henry of Canada regarding the conscience rights of medical professionals.]

July 30, 1997

Mr. Ian Pattison

The Chronicle-Journal

Editorial Page Editor

75 South Cumberland St.

Thunder Bay, ON, P7B IA3

Dear Sir:

Once again I find myself indebted to the Chronicle-Journal for publishing Mr. Jobbitt's and Mr. Potts' letter, which appeared under the heading, "Bishop's letter doesn't explain whole issue." It affords me the opportunity to point out the half truths they have offered for public consumption and to expose even further their blatant hypocrisy.

First of all, the wording of The Letter of Understanding between the two hospitals does read: "Nurses transferring to Thunder Bay Regional could be required to participate in clinical abortions..." Note the operative word "could." The St. Joseph's human resource team felt comfortable with the agreement language because the "table discussions" with TBRH and the nurses union (ONA) seemed to indicate that TBRH would make every effort to reassign nurses who did not want to assist with abortions. If they were bargaining in good faith, why does the operating room nurse manager at TBRH now insist that all OR nurses "must" assist with therapeutic abortions and that no exceptions can be made? What happened to the institutional commitment? Furthermore, TBRH makes allowances and accommodations for TBRH staff working on medical-surgical units when saline abortions are initiated if and when staff have a problem with performing this duty. If TBRH nurses have been accommodated yet nurses transferring from St. Joseph's have not been and will not be, it seems that we have a clear-cut case of discrimination. Their action is tantamount to nailing a sign on the operating room door: "Catholic nurses need not apply to work here." Is it any wonder that I might raise the question: "Are they anti-Catholic?"

Secondly, it is disconcerting that the significant concerns of some staff regarding abortions would be so callously dismissed by referring to the College of Nurses of Ontario Ethical Guidelines. While these guidelines indicate a nurse cannot abandon a patient, the suggestion that elective clients who are admitted to TBRH for clinical abortions would be abandoned by nurses declining participation in the abortion on the grounds of moral objection extends the term "abandon" beyond a reasonable definition. Such equivocation would be picked up by any student in elementary logic.

Rather than consider staff as their most precious resource and treat them with respect, care and compassion during a painful and difficult time of transition, TBRH has chosen to hide behind a text that was not designed to address our precise issue. The words of Jesus come readily to mind: "They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to life a finger to move them.... Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practised without neglecting the others. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel! (Mt. 23: 4, 23)."

Thirdly, there is their spurious claim: "... the hospital is aware of one individual who has stated a concern in dealing with abortions." I cannot believe their gall in constantly repeating this falsehood. Two other individuals have approached me personally and I so informed the above named hospital officials but they continue to talk of one individual. Although our language has not been parabolic, these hospital officials do resemble the Pharisees: "seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand" (Mt.13:13).

For the sake of argument I have even suggested to them that we assume that there is only one individual and so what's the harm of putting in place a conscience policy as a sign of good faith. They have countered: "We can't do that, we won't have enough nurses to assist with abortions." They don't seem to be aware of the logical fallacy of trying to have it both ways. It's either a problem of one individual or it's problematic for several, it can't be both. When they were presented with a draft of a strict conscience policy that would have alleviated their major concern, it was summarily dismissed.

Fourthly, they allege that the one individual's "reluctance is not for religious or moral reasons, but for reasons of personal discomfort." I would suggest that they have understated the trauma of the individual in question. In her own words she says: "The intensity of my physical and emotional anxiety has caused me great stress and has led me to contact the Health Nurse who referred me to the EAP program". Remember, we are talking about an experienced (eleven years) certified peri-operative nurse. It's too bad that I didn't have a video camera with me to catch the reaction of our hospital officials when I asked them the question: "Given her background and experience, if her problems are not ethically, morally or religiously based, can you offer me a sufficient and necessary explanation to account for her physiological reaction? Has anyone asked her why this procedure is so upsetting?" After a moment of silence, their feeble response was, "No, not in those words."

I wish I could convince myself that their rigidity was based on some defensible principle(s), even invincible ignorance, but "Please don't talk to us about facts, we already have our minds made up" seems to be their stance.

Sincerely yours,

+ F. B. Henry

Bishop of Thunder Bay.

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