May/June, 1999 Volume XIII Number 6

Calgary hospital nurses go public with abortion concerns

Calgary by Marnie Ko
From a story published in Alberta Report news magazine April 11/99.

Calgary, Alberta, CANADA -- A registered nurse at the Calgary Foothills Hospital was “sick for weeks” when a pregnant woman only five weeks away from her due date had an abortion after doctors said the Unborn baby had genetic defects that would prove “lethal.” The baby survived the abortion living for twelve hours without medical technology, despite “fatal defects.”
The nurse, “Catherine” (not her real name for fear of losing her job), says, “The mother didn’t want the baby, so nurses took turns rocking and holding the tiny infant for twelve hours until it finally died. Nurses were only allowed to offer the suffering infant comfort measures and this did not even include feedings.”
In an anonymous yet descriptive and detailed letter to Alberta Report magazine, another staff member described the volatile situation currently on the postpartum and labor/delivery wards of the Foothills Hospital.
The letter-writer, “Sally” (not her real name), said she was “outraged” by a new decision by administration that post-partum nurses, who had purposely chosen not be involved in abortions because they “value pregnancy and human life,” would be caring for women aborting “imperfect” babies.
“Sally” described her co-workers as “anguished at being told to provide care” for women aborting “genetically defective” babies.
She wrote, “The present mood is ...chaotic, helpless, frustrated and highly emotional. In the past weeks, I have witnessed tears, breakdowns, illnesses, and stress such as never before ...sick calls have been high and experienced staff nearly impossible to recruit.”
In internal memos in recent months, postpartum nurses, who care for mothers after they deliver their infants, were told that they would be responsible for the care of abortion patients.
The nurses interviewed say it is “unfair and traumatic that nurses dedicated to the nurturing of babies, Unborn and newly born,” are being forced to do abortions with no regard for their moral or religious convictions.
Finding willing personnel to staff abortion services is not easy. Over 65% of registered nurses in the United States polled by RN magazine would refuse to work in an Obstetrics unit where abortions were performed. This is contrasted with 10 years ago, said RN editor Suzanne Wolfe in an interview with Reuters Health, when most nurses would “work where abortions were performed.”
Nurse Catherine says her unit “handles abortions from fourteen weeks gestation up to 23 or 24 weeks. After 23 weeks, it’s pretty dicey because we’re getting into viability . . . babies can survive” the abortion attempt.
The nurse says, “The terminations are done by inserting Cytotec, a drug that ripens the cervix and causes powerful uterine contractions, into the woman vaginally. The nurse does it. She’s given one or two every four to six hours and it can take up to four or five days to cause contractions powerful enough to expel the baby from the mother’s uterus.” She adds, “That whole time the abortion is tying up a birthing room that’s meant for couples who are having a “wanted” baby. It is hoped that the baby dies during labor before coming out. But not all babies do.”
She also says that there have been recent abortions, including the one at 35 weeks gestation, where the baby did not die immediately. She explains that “40 to 50% of these terminations are delivered by nurses because the doctors don’t make it. There was a baby at 23 weeks gestation that survived just a few months ago.”
A nervous spokesman for the hospital, Shirley Popadiuk, Public Affairs Manager of Acute Care, confirms that there was a 23 week gestated child that survived after an abortion, but says the baby was “a rare infant born alive, with lethal injuries. It would not survive.”
But Catherine recalls that the infant had Down’s Syndrome, not life-threatening defects, and says the baby lived for two hours without medical care.
Popadiuk insists that hospital records say the baby received “pallative care -- fluids, warmth, comfort,” but she admits she has “no specifics only generalities.” She also states that nurses are not doing abortions because it’s “doctors who give the medications that induce labor in a termination,” not the nurses.
Minutes from a February unit-staff meeting detail that “genetic terminations” will be done by postpartum nurses and an additional internal hospital memo contradicts Popadiuk.
The memo states that staff on the unit are responsible for admissions, and “...will provide the patient with the medication to induce labor . . . when delivery is imminent . . . will be called to do the delivery and the subsequent paper work.”
The documents also state that “no one will be excluded from the care of these patients.”
Senior Operating Officer Nora Kirkham says that the hospital is “aware of the concerns” of the nurses, and that “possibilities and other options are being discussed” regarding both the location of abortions, and the feelings of postpartum nurses not wanting a role in abortions.
Kirkham maintains that “every effort is made to allow nurses out of it (abortions)” and says, “hopefully nurses with problems . . . this is a societal issue . . . make choices not to work there,” referring to units doing abortions.
But the nurses insist that they are being forced to do abortions with “no choice” if they want to “keep our jobs.”
Saskatchewan Member of Parliament Maurice Vellacott has prepared a bill, dubbed the “conscience bill,” currently being presented to Ottawa, which will amend the Criminal Code to allow professionals the right to opt out of participation in procedures like abortion or euthanasia that are objectionable to their religious convictions or consciences, without risking their job.
Edmontonian Joanne Hatton, President of Alberta Prolife, says that the attempt to force nurses to care for women having abortions is “yet another attempt to pretend that abortion is legitimate medicine.” However, Hatton is convinced that the public is beginning to “get the sense that this is disgusting.”
Popadiuk says that abortions are not being performed after 24 weeks because of “Alberta College of Physicians and Surgeons policies.”
When asked about the baby aborted five weeks before term, she ended the interview with great agitation saying, “I can’t answer these questions, I have to go.”
Kirkham also says she is unable to answer questions about Catherine’s description of abortions or claims that babies are living for hours after an abortion.
She said, “I have no idea. I’m not a clinical person and I have no personal knowledge of this at all.”
She added that medical spokesmen for the hospital were not available to comment, but said, “Without a doubt, no terminations are being done after 24 weeks.”
Nurse Catherine calls this word play.
“Sure they aren’t doing terminations after 24 weeks because then they call it induction,” she says, “because the baby’s viable but it’s semantics. The policy is ambiguously written so doctors can abort fetuses over 24 weeks, calling it induction instead of termination, but they have every intent of letting the child die. It’s the same thing: the baby still dies no matter what it’s called.”
Saskatchewan MP Maurice Vellacott In what she sees as an attempt to “desensitize” nurses to the idea of abortions, Catherine says “Doctors do not consider women having abortions to be mothers.” She’s been told, “These women are not mothers, they are just patients terminating their pregnancies.”
She is also concerned that there are more genetic abortions being done on the unit.
“There was only one a month six months ago. Now in the last couple of months we’re seeing one or two a week,” she said.
Popadiuk said “about 40” genetic abortions occurred in 1998.
Says Catherine, “As it stands now the union has told us that nurses can’t refuse to care for patients. There are 125 staff on the unit, and no matter what the hospital says about making efforts to accommodate nurses who don’t want to do terminations, the head nurse and the charge nurse have told us that we all have to take our turn. They’re not making efforts at all. I have to shut off a part of me to do this job now. It’s real bad.”
With a note of desperation in her voice, the nurse added, “Abortions should be illegal. These are not little lima beans with feet. These are babies. If you were holding their head in the palm of your hand, their little feet would reach your elbow. . . .We’re crossing the line.”

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