They Said “NO!”: When 12 Nurses Refused to Do Abortions

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Nurses in a big city hospital never know what a day’s shift will bring – straightforward cases or medical miracles, major crises or minor first aid. Whatever her station, whatever the duty of the moment, a nurse tries to ready herself for anything. But some things, you just can’t see coming.

It was Beryl Otieno Ngoje’s turn to work the desk in the Same Day Surgery Unit at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey (UMDNJ), in Newark. She was busy with the usual administrative duties – filing charts, handing out forms to the patients, answering visitors’ questions – when another nurse hurried up beside her.

“Oh, something just happened, you won’t believe it,” the woman said, visibly excited. “I have it in my hand.” She held up a clenched fist, palm up. “I have it in my hand,” she said again.

“What do you have in your hand?” Beryl asked, bemused at the woman’s demeanor.

“Do you want to see?”

“Yes,” Beryl said – and instantly regretted it.

The other nurse opened her hand to reveal the tiny, tiny form of a baby, just aborted.

“I felt like somebody had just hit me with something in my face,” Beryl remembers.

She began to cry, to the consternation of her coworker.

“I’m sorry – I didn’t know you were going to react like that,” the woman said.

It was a moment that seared Beryl’s soul and haunted her memory, and it would come back often, in the days ahead. For the other nurse was not just a co-worker, but her manager… with the power to hold not just an unborn baby, but Beryl’s career in the palm of her hand.

The dozen-or-so nurses of the UMDNJ Same Day Surgery Unit – like nurses at any other hospital – are a lively mixture of backgrounds and personalities. Beryl, a native of Kenya, is a quiet ICU specialist who’s been with the hospital for over 15 years. Fe Esperanza Racpan Vinoya, a veteran of the ER and ICU, is from the Philippines, and speaks with cheerful delight about her love for music and for her church. Lorna Mendoza has been a nurse for 25 years, at University for more than a dozen, and takes both her work and her Christian faith very seriously.

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“We high-five each other,” Beryl says, “Most of us are there 12 hours, and that is a good portion of your day. It is important that you get along and feel relaxed and free.”

Because: “you get to socialize a lot,” Fe says. “You’re less busy here than in the ER.”

The nurses of Fe’s unit are responsible for monitoring, medicating, and placating patients going into and coming out of surgery. That means a lot of bedside comfort, encouragement, and interaction with both patients and their families, so conversations between coworkers tend to be quick exchanges in the hallway or on break. What the nurses share, more than close friendship, is delight in and commitment to a job they love.

“It’s a noble job,” says Fe. “Very fulfilling… a healing profession. Everything you do for the patient just makes them feel better, and satisfies my entire being, because I’ve helped someone.”

“A lot of people don’t realize… we usually see somebody at their worst,” Beryl says. “They’re not perky, happy – they’re ailing and hurting. They just want somebody to be there. I can make a difference. I can help in whatever little way. I find that very gratifying.”

All operations on this unit are elective – that is, the patient chooses to have a specific procedure done: a tonsillectomy, a hernia repair, the removal of cataracts. And, sometimes, an abortion.

Not the kind of abortion where the mother’s life is in danger, Beryl says. “They just choose to end it. These are people who go to the doctor and say, ‘Look, I don’t want this pregnancy.’ The age range is mostly teenagers – 13-, 14- and 15-year-olds – and a lot of times, they come back.”

“To some, it’s like contraception,” Fe says. “Five or six times, you see them there.”

“I always tell them, ‘I’ll be praying for you, and I hope that this is the last time I’ll see you doing this kind of procedure.’”

If she ends up talking to those patients, she says, “I always tell them, ‘I’ll be praying for you, and I hope that this is the last time I’ll see you doing this kind of procedure.’ I can see in their faces how guilty they feel, the guilt in their hearts.” Many say, “Yes, definitely this is my last time.”

And yet, so often, they come back.

Fe knows, all too well, about that guilt in their eyes. Twenty years ago – still new to America, still learning the language and culture, just getting the hang of her first nursing job – she found she was pregnant…

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