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Nassau University Medical Center president Arthur Gianelli has cancelled the punishment originally decreed for eight nurses who refused to participate in an abortion at the East Meadow, New York, hospital. The hospital also has issued an apology to several of the nurses.

On March 30, a patient who was fourteen or fifteen weeks pregnant and experiencing complications came to the hospital for surgery to prevent a miscarriage. As she was being prepared for surgery, her water broke. The next day, after being told by a doctor that she was in danger of developing a life-threatening infection if she continued to carry the baby, she decided to terminate her pregnancy. When the eight nurses declined to take part in the abortion, the patient’s doctor opted to postpone the procedure, as the patient was stable and in no danger, and a nurse willing to assist in an abortion was scheduled to come in later that day. For reasons not made clear in various newspaper reports, the abortion did not, in fact, take place until April 2.

According to Newsday , however, on March 31, “because of a miscommunication . . . the director of perinatal nursing believed the patient was in a life-threatening situation” and “informed her superiors of the nurses’ refusal to take part or to sign a form attesting to their objections.” It was at this point that the hospital instituted its disciplinary action, as the “right of refusal” form that the nurses were asked to sign states that the opt-out provisions “do not apply during a medical emergency.” This stipulation follows federal law.

In an article published in mid-April, the Long Island Catholic , the local diocesan newspaper, reported that on March 31, after the nurses were given the form to sign, one of them contacted a union representative, “who came to the maternity ward to assess the situation.” According to the representative, on April 2, the eight “were verbally reprimanded . . . . In addition, three lost vacation time and the other five also [faced] further disciplinary action. They were cited for alleged insubordination, failing to provide patient care and endangering patient safety, refusal to sign the form, refusing to accept transfer of a patient from another unit, and conducting union business in a patient care area.” Interestingly, as the Long Island Catholic report also noted, “No specific reference to abortion was made.”

According to Newsday , hospital president Gianelli says that this incident “forced hospital officials to look closely at their policy on employees’ right to perform or assist in some health care procedures.” Additionally, the hospital “is refining a new policy that defines more clearly when a health care worker can refuse to take part in a nonemergency procedure. It also says the attending physician must declare and document a medical emergency.” reports, however, that the hospital “declined to comment when asked about their policy or whether they would force medical staff to participate in abortion in an ‘emergency situation.’”

Matt Bowman of the Alliance Defense Fund tells that both New York law and federal law “make it illegal for a regulated hospital to force objecting employees in any circumstances to assist abortions. There is no exception letting the hospital sometimes coerce pro-life health professionals when it wants to, such as if the abortion doctor thinks the abortion is necessary.” As Bowman also points out, “The reason these laws don’t sometimes allow coercion . . . is because abortion doctors believe all abortions are medically necessary.”

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