NEWARK, N.J. — Twelve nurses who sued one of the state's largest hospitals after claiming they were forced to assist in abortions over their religious and moral objections reached a deal Thursday with their employer in federal court.
Under the agreement, 12 nurses in the same-day surgery unit of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey can remain in their current positions and not be compelled to assist in any part of an abortion procedure. The nurses must only help in a life-threatening emergency if no other non-objecting staff members are available and only until which time one can be brought in to relieve them, according to the agreement.
Fe Esperanza Racpan Vinoya, one of the plaintiffs who said she opposes abortion on religious grounds, said she was happy that the agreement meant she and her colleagues would not have to assist in any aspect of an abortion procedure. Despite the ruling specifying that the nurses wouldn't be discriminated against, Racpan Vinoya said she was still nervous they would be transferred, have their hours cut or otherwise be punished for having sued.
"I'm still scared about the part of them having four nurses brought in and we might become the surpluses," Racpan Vinoya said, referring to the hospital hiring four nurses who do not object to assisting with the procedure.
Matt Bowman, an attorney with the Alliance Defense Fund, a coalition of Christian lawyers and organizations that represented the nurses, said they were satisfied with the agreement.
An attorney representing the hospital, Edward Deutsch, said his client was pleased the case was resolved.
"I think it's an appropriate resolution, and the hospital has been very accommodating," he said.
The hospital issued a statement saying the agreement addresses the best interests of the patients it serves, while respecting the beliefs of its nurses.
Attorney John Peirano, who also represented the hospital in the suit, said the hospital had a mission to treat all patients who come in, regardless of whether they share the nurses' views.
The ACLU, which was not party to the suit, said it was concerned about a growing number of similar cases around the country as what the organization sees as an effort to use religion to discriminate in a health care context.
"No one should ever have to worry about facing discrimination when they check into the hospital," said Brigitte Amiri, an attorney with the ACLU's Reproductive Freedom Project. "No woman should have to fear that medical staff will place ideology over duty or deny her care."
Bowman said his clients would never compromise their duty as nurses to care for patients or their oath to respond to medical emergencies.
The agreement was mediated by U.S. District Judge Jose Linares in Newark federal court. Linares said his understanding of the agreement was that the nurses would be allowed to remain in the unit and wouldn't be discriminated against because of their position on abortion, but he declined to rule on how the hospital had to staff its shifts, saying that was an issue governed by contract rules and subject to collective bargaining. Linares said he would retain jurisdiction over the case to rule on enforcement or any disputes that might arise.
Racpan Vinoya and two other nurse plaintiffs attended court Thursday. All but four nurses in their unit had signed on to the lawsuit filed Oct. 31 after they said they were notified in writing the previous month that the hospital's new policy would require same-day surgery unit nurses to assist in abortions.
The nurses claimed in the suit that the hospital was compelling them to undergo training that involved assisting in abortions and had indicated they could be subject to termination if they didn't comply. Racpan Vinoya and others said they had made their objections known to their supervisor and to hospital officials and their concerns were dismissed or ignored.
The hospital denied those claims, saying nurses were not compelled to participate, or even be in the room, during a procedure to which they objected on cultural, religious or ethical grounds.
Linares complimented both sides for reaching an agreement after several hours of discussions. He said it wasn't an easy case to resolve considering it revolved around a highly emotional issue and involved the complexities of the hospital's obligations to its patients.