Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXIX, No. 2
30th Anniversary Issue
Should a Pro-Life Person Become a Nurse?
by Nancy Valko, RN
Recently I received an email from a nurse friend asking if I could reply to a letter from a student nurse. Unfortunately, this student nurse’s concerns are common, and I’ve often wondered how many wonderful pro-life people have been intimidated from pursing a medical career because of such concerns and so many media outlets’ bias against the pro-life movement.
Because of the urgency, at first I replied to this student with suggestions about specialties that had few if any ethical conflicts, such as same-day surgery clinics and pro-life doctors’ offices.
But then I realized that this reply missed the real issue: Is it worth it to become a pro-life nurse? So I sent this student my revised reply.
Letter and Reply
The following is this anonymous student nurse’s letter and my reply:
I am a nursing student with big questions. I am 100% pro-life — anti-abortion in ALL cases, anti-birth control, anti-euthanasia, anti-sex change, and the like. Is there any hope for me in the culture of death nursing field? I’ve emailed a few right-to-life folks. They tell me that there is a desperate need for pro-life nurses. I would agree, but, from the anti-life demeanor of some bloggers, becoming a nurse seems akin to being thrown to the lions. So, my question: what area of nursing can I move into that does not demand that I do things that I absolutely will not do?
Some nurses say that a nurse must take care of all patients and their every medical need and that a nurse could become “dis-barred” if they dare refuse to care for someone. I don’t want to sacrifice any more of my family’s time by finishing this degree if I end up getting fired everywhere I go or having to hire a lawyer to defend my pro-life, God-given conscience! I have a family to support financially. I am very, very concerned. I have to pay for this fall’s classes by the end of the month or else I’m out of the program.
Do you have any advice for me? Am I being too over the top about the whole thing? I don’t know what the “real” nursing world is like.
I’ve been a pro-life nurse for 45 years working in hospice, intensive care, general medicine/surgery, oncology, dialysis, and home health, along with some other jobs both paid and volunteer. I never wanted to be anything but a nurse.
I’ve just retired this month from hospital nursing but not from nursing itself. I’ve taken courses to become a legal nurse consultant mostly to become a more effective pro-life advocate.
I have never regretted becoming a nurse.
When I started in the 1960s, all medical professionals were on the same page except for oral contraceptive pills, which were just being developed. Back then, the focus was entirely on helping patients. I went to my first job interview not even knowing what I would be paid or what benefits were available. I just wanted to help relieve suffering.
When I started as a registered nurse in 1969, the camaraderie was amazing. We were all so dedicated and willing to do anything to help. We were inspired by TV medical shows like Medical Center, Marcus Welby, MD, and others that portrayed medicine as a vocation and even ministry. And we lived it.
When the American Academy of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (now the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) in 1965 quietly changed the definition of the beginning of life from fertilization to implantation in the uterus, things began to change rapidly. This was done to allow contraception to become not only legal but also promoted as a beneficial development.
By 1973 when Roe v. Wade made abortion legal, I was a 23- year-old intensive care unit nurse and the decision was a shock to all of us. A few doctors and nurses thought it might be okay since we all thought abortions were only done in very early pregnancies. Besides, the abortion promoters told us that women would go for help more readily instead of to “back alley” abortionists. We were told that with such help, more women would have the support to have their babies.
However, abortion was soon promoted as a positive good and a women’s right issue. The traditional ethic that was the bedrock of our medical professions — of never harming or causing the death of our patients — was undermined.
But I was unaware of all this (the facts about abortion and contraception) when I left nursing temporarily in 1976 to raise my children. However, I was still a nurse and the volunteer opportunities were a way that I could still be involved. This was one of the happiest times of my life and I knew I was still a nurse.
However, in 1982 I learned firsthand how awful things had become when my baby Karen was born with Down syndrome and a critical heart defect. At the same time there was a national case involving a baby with Down syndrome who had an easily treated problem with his esophagus but the parents — on the advice of their OB/GYN — refused the routine surgery because they said their son would be better off dead. The baby died of starvation and dehydration about two weeks later. I was very upset and wondered what had happened to medical ethics during the time I was away from hospital nursing.
When my Karen was born, I came face to face with what is rightly called the culture of death when I was offered — even encouraged by some — to refuse surgery for my daughter and just let her die. As I told her cardiologist, “When exactly do her constitutional rights kick in? She’s not even a ‘fetus,’ for God’s sake!”
The cardiologist immediately backtracked and said he would do everything to save my daughter’s life. I knew he was a good man but I could never completely trust him again. What frightened me the most was that he and so many of the doctors and nurses involved with Karen had been seduced into a “better dead than disabled” mentality. I finally realized how much medical and nursing education had changed and a lot of that was due to the deterioration of ethics starting with contraception. Young doctors and nurses were no longer being taught sanctity of life but rather quality of life.
My daughter Karen finally made me a committed pro-life advocate.
Eventually I saw even utilitarian economics become a growing part of medical ethics. That’s why we have such issues as in vitro fertilization, assisted suicide/euthanasia, and organ donation problems.
I went back into hospital nursing in 1989 when I suddenly became a single mom and the sole support of three children. However, things had changed radically. Nurses were being laid off and I found that my volunteer pro-life work was frowned upon by many.
However, I didn’t give up, and instead of talking about prolife topics, I set my sights on being the best nurse possible. It worked.
As time went on I got on ethics committees where I could make a difference by talking about cases from a traditional ethics/natural law perspective, which is really the basis of pro-life health care. My fellow nurses eventually decided I was a good nurse even if I didn’t agree that abortion should be legal. I was even able to help a fellow nurse who was considering abortion get more information and she eventually had a healthy baby — and her first girl.
I was also able to advocate for my chronically ill, terminally ill, elderly, and disabled patients. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t, but I knew that at least I tried and I saw some minds and hearts changed in the process.
Only once was I threatened with firing in a situation where I could not “opt out” but I knew my rights. This is where groups like California Nurses for Ethical Standards (ethicalnurses.org) and the National Association of Pro Life Nurses (nursesforlife. org, where I am a spokesperson) can help. In that case, not only was I not fired but my stand helped a whole floor of other nurses say no — in unison — to a doctor who ordered something unethical.
So my point is not that is easy to be a pro-life nurse. My point is that it is a privilege and a mission to be a pro-life nurse!
I ended my reply by giving this student my email address and home phone number.
The culture of death is big and intimidating but I believe that the vast majority of doctors and nurses do want to give the best care to their patients. Sadly, between groups promoting death issues like abortion and euthanasia with the help of a sympathetic and biased media and the deteriorating ethical standards taught in many medical and nursing schools, many doctors and nurses are unaware that there is a better philosophy of health care. Too many think that legal automatically means ethical. We need to help educate them, not just with words but with truly excellent and patient-safe health care.
The situation will continue to be difficult because culture of death supporters know that if enough doctors and nurses refuse to participate in their agenda, their movement is dead. Long ago, I resolved never to become angry or criticize people for their views but I also resolved to be steadfast on the front lines of the battle between killing and caring. Although the episode of my attempted firing could have ended differently and I actually did not expect the positive outcome, I was willing to lose my job rather than participate in a deliberate death decision.
Conscience rights are crucial, especially in today’s world. We need strong conscience rights on all life issues enshrined in law and in practice to protect ethical health care providers and their patients.
In the end and despite the occasional difficulties, I can attest personally that it has all been worth it and that I am truly blessed to be a pro-life nurse.
Nancy Valko, RN ALNC, a contributing editor for Voices and long-time advocate of ethical and patient-safe health care, writes the regular “Bioethics Watch” column for Voices. A registered nurse since 1969, she is a spokesperson for the National Association of Pro Life Nurses, past president of Missouri Nurses for Life, and past co-chair of the St. Louis Archdiocesan Respect Life Committee.
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