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Protection of Conscience Project

Service, not Servitude

Life Support, Anyone?

Pro-Life Physician Answers the Challenge

Jan/Feb 2000 Lay Witness
Reproduced with permission

Katherine Schlaerth

I objected to this commandeering of a nurse who clearly felt uncomfortable assisting at an abortion . . .  After that occurrence, I found that my fellow physicians in our department were distancing themselves from me, even those who claimed to be "pro-life." Everyone was afraid that a show of support would put jobs in jeopardy.

I have been a physician at a premier private university medical school in California for a couple of decades. One day, about eight months ago, a fellow physician came to me and said that a nurse had been told to assist at an abortion in our department of family medicine and had left the room after the procedure crying and calling herself a murderer.

I was well aware that our new department chairman prided himself on doing procedures, abortions being high on his list. Almost none of the nurses wanted to assist, so occasionally nurses from outside the system were hired to come in and help him end a baby's life. On this occasion, he was unable to hire an outsider and so harnessed one of our regular nurses who'd apparently even signed a statement of conscience asking to be excluded from the procedure.

I objected to this commandeering of a nurse who clearly felt uncomfortable assisting at an abortion, having earlier protested about the fact that family physicians were doing these brutal terminations in the first place. My protests had been met with an attitude of dismissal prior to the "nurse episode." After that occurrence, I found that my fellow physicians in our department were distancing themselves from me, even those who claimed to be "pro-life." Everyone was afraid that a show of support would put jobs in jeopardy.

But my decision to actually leave the university's department of family medicine was finally forced upon me by a weather-beaten couple who came into the clinic early one morning with an urgent request for a common drug used mostly for stomach ailments. Their demands were made loudly and urgently and accompanied by a pathetic tale of bedside vigils with a family member whose illness was potentially life-threatening. Worry had worn the mother to a frazzle, and she'd decided the only solution to the stress in her life was to abort the "accidental pregnancy" she'd carried for over a month and a half.

She was obliged with a prescription, from another physician, for a common anti-cancer drug called methotrexate, which she was gravely warned would damage her fetus, making termination mandatory. She must not miss her next appointment for the drug which would complete the work of the first. I did not give her the second drug, nor did I give her an appointment to get it. Somehow, another physician magically appeared-probably summoned frantically by the clerk who saw the makings of a conflict of momentous proportions - who was most happy to comply with the by now infuriated couples' request.

After this event, I got to thinking. Abortions were now being done in the backroom of our facility, and resident physicians were learning the procedures. I'd brought up the point that abortions did not sit well with patients who may be in the very same clinic for infertility problems, and most mothers would not especially like to have their toddlers vaccinated right next door to where kids a year or so younger were being killed. My economically based protests got nowhere.

Though being named "teacher of the year" two weeks earlier by our family medicine residents, and seeing the largest number of patients of all the providers assigned to our clinic, I realized that my economic and teaching attributes paled in importance to the right of the abortionists in our group practice to empty whatever uteruses they pleased, under whatever conditions they pleased. It was time for me, with great heaviness of heart, to leave this facility.

My story is far from unique. Another physician faced exactly the same situation at the state university which is known as our cross-town rival, and also submitted his resignation rather than work in a clinic where abortion-on-demand was practised. Up north in the San Francisco Bay area, a physician who was the mother and sole support of three young children related in a whisper how she would try to talk young girls into avoiding premarital sex, or into carrying a pregnancy to term, but feared that any open acknowledgment of her pro-life persuasion would mean the loss of her job. Nurses and other healthcare providers who object to abortions are similarly harassed, forced to resign, or ridiculed in many areas of our fair state and nation. What does this mean for the public?

As more and more healthcare workers who have a life ethic that values each individual are systematically discouraged from practising their beliefs, and as attrition forced by a hostile workplace depletes their numbers, young doctors and nurses are increasingly taught by those who believe that life has little value when it is not perfect, or is not desired by others. Oregon already has a law that legalizes physician-assisted suicide. A similar bill is under active consideration in the California State Assembly. Already I've had patients who fear that admission to the hospital will put their care in the hands of those who may end their lives if a cure doesn't seem possible.

Fortunately, at present, this possibility is rather remote. But will that always be the case? In Holland, terminations have increased in number and safeguards have decreased over the years. "Damaged" newborns are put to death if their parents consent. Back at Princeton, the new chair of the Ethics Department actually espouses the killing of babies with major congenital problems. Medicine's philosophy is slowly swinging from allegiance to the individual patient toward duty to the larger community. People believe the world is becoming too crowded. The logical outcome of a simultaneous consideration of these two factors is decreased attention to the medical needs of patients considered too much of a social burden.

Football season will never be the same again. When I hear the strains of our beloved "Conquest," played by our marching band decked out in the plumbed helmets as our white mascot gallops proudly around the track, there will be pride in our football warriors, but it will be mixed with sadness. Our Trojan horse looks beautiful on the outside, but I also know that our institution on the inside has lost its way. We have embraced a culture that values convenience over the right of each individual to live his or her life as planned by the Author of all life from the beginning of time.


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