Bishop FB Henry on Conscience Rights
July 10, 1997
Mr. Ian Pattison
Editorial Page Editor
75 South Cumberland St.
Thunder Bay, ON, P7B IA3
I would like to commend the Chronicle Journal for its willingness to feature
Pamela Bron's story, Medicine & Morals: Is There Room for Both in Our Present
Day Health Care System? If we're talking about Thunder Bay Regional
Hospital, apparently not! In this institution administrative convenience in
scheduling runs roughshod over ethical considerations.
When I made my first inquiry into whether Catholic and non-Catholic nurses
transferring from St. Joseph's Hospital due to hospital restructuring were being
forced to participate in abortions, I was informed by a senior board member and
an administrator that it really isn't a problem as it only involves one nurse.
That response, probably proffered as an attempt at damage control, turned out to
be totally false. Since that time others nurses have acknowledged the same force
or compulsion and have sought the help and assistance of their parish priests.
Given the current down-sizing of staff in our local health care delivery
system, some nurses are afraid to speak out or make their disapproval known as
they fear for their jobs. My own attempts, beginning on May 23, to intervene
quietly with hospital officials in order to find a solution to this current
dilemma have met with little success. Hospital officials continue to stonewall
and stall, to deny, and reminiscent of Pilate, wash their hands of any
One administrator is quoted as saying that if nurses don't want to
participate in abortions, they have the option of switching shifts if they
can find someone to take over their shift (emphasis added). The hidden
assumption here seems to be that abortion is such a popular job that nurses line
up waiting for a chance to participate. The truth of the matter is that even the
veteran nurses at the TB Regional are not totally at ease with their role but
the administration doesn't want to acknowledge or face this reality either.
When Sault Ste. Marie Plummer and General Hospitals dealt with their
consolidated Operating Room Programme in Sault Ste. Marie they adopted the
following principled stance: "Regardless of where the consolidated OR may be
located, the Hospital shall make a reasonable effort to accommodate a nurse's
religious beliefs. Notwithstanding the above, any nurse presently working in the
OR at the Sault Ste. Marie General Hospital shall not be required to assist with
any procedure that is not consistent with the philosophy of the Catholic
Church." A similar agreement was reached in Peterborough. As a matter of fact,
it is quite common practice in public hospitals that nurses are not compelled to
assist with abortions if their conscience so dictates. The institution is to
provide for and to facilitate the exercise of "conscientious objection" in order
to protect individual freedom while at the same time continuing to fulfill its
One can only speculate as to why our local hospital policy makers have not
chosen to take the high road and copy such a sensitive and balanced approach?
When the deficiencies in the current Human Resources Plan are pointed out to
them, why are they so intransigent? Don't they care about the moral principles
and religious beliefs of their employees? Are they anti-Catholic?
Based on the public statements reported in this newspaper, the administration
certainly appears to be ethically confused, if not morally vacuous, likening the
abortion issue to the treatment of HIV-positive patients. The point is not
abandonment of a patient or the refusal of treatment to individuals who have had
abortions or to HIV-positive patients; such patients have the right to receive
professional care from nursing staff. However, the nurses transferring from St.
Joseph's are coming out of a tradition that believes that human life is
inviolable; it must be defended and promoted, reverenced and loved. An abortion
is the direct killing of an innocent human being. In such a tradition to
participate in an abortion is to assist in murder. I think that certainly
constitutes "abandonment" of one of the patients involved. We are dealing with
different category questions.
Given that abortion is elective surgery, and not life threatening (unless you
happen to be the child in the womb), it's sadly ironic that in our times when we
tend to exalt freedom of choice - a woman can choose to have an abortion, a
doctor can choose to perform or not perform an abortion, but a nurse and the
unborn child have absolutely no choice in the matter. Shame on you, Thunder Bay
+ F.B. Henry
Bishop of Thunder Bay