A Roman Catholic nurse who says she felt “violated and betrayed, like I had been raped” after being forced to take part in a second-trimester abortion is suing a New York City hospital on charges of violating her rights.
Catherina Lorena Cenzon-DeCarlo, 35, a Filipina nurse who is a permanent U.S. resident and married to an American, says that Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan “blatantly” violated a 35-year-old federal law that protects health care workers with religious objections from having to assist in performing abortions.
The hospital performed a late-term abortion on a woman whose health was not at risk, she says. The nurse is asking for a jury trial that could strip the hospital of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding until it complies with the law.
“I hope that Mount Sinai will obey the law and allow health-care workers not to assist in abortion against their beliefs,” she said in a statement. “I believe lots of nurses and doctors throughout the country are being pressured to assist abortion, and I want them to know they are not alone, and they should speak up for their rights of conscience.”
Because the case is pending litigation, Mount Sinai is refusing to comment, spokeswoman Jeanne Bernard said Thursday.
The New York State Nurses Association, the union representing nurses at Mount Sinai, and the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the hospital’s federal funding, did not return requests for comment.
According to the 26-page complaint filed in U.S. District Court for New York’s Eastern District, the lawsuit says when Mrs. DeCarlo was hired in August 2004, she told hospital officials outright that she would not participate in abortions. She is Catholic and her uncle is Bishop Carlito J. Cenzon, who leads the Roman Catholic diocese of Baguio in the northern Philippines.
The hospital did not object to this and gave her a form to complete that indicated her refusal to take part in the procedure. During the nearly five years from her hiring date until this May, the lawsuit said, the hospital had avoided asking her to assist on abortions, as it has a cadre of other nurses who have indicated their unwillingness to do so.
Founded in 1852, Mount Sinai was the nation’s second Jewish hospital. The plaintiff said it usually schedules abortions on Saturdays, which is the Jewish sabbath.
But it was on May 24, a Sunday morning shift over Memorial Day weekend, when matters came to a head. The nurse said she was told she was assigned to help with a “D&C,” signifying “dilation and curettage,” a procedure to remove the remains of a miscarriage from a woman’s womb. But when she began preparing the operating room, she learned she had been assigned to help with aborting a 22-week pregnancy.
Dr. Noel Strong, the resident on duty, said the mother had preeclampsia, a medical complication involving hypertension and protein in the urine that is treatable with magnesium sulfate. Mrs. DeCarlo thought the preeclampsia not to be life-threatening and thus not an immediate cause for an emergency abortion. A flurry of calls then erupted between her and supervisors Fran Carpo and Ella Shapiro after Mrs. DeCarlo refused to take part in the procedure, the lawsuit says.
Ms. Carpo - on instructions from Ms. Shapiro - then forbade the nurse to try to find a substitute, adding that the doctor performing the abortion had called her, furious about the delay, the lawsuit charges. While Ms. Carpo said the patient was in mortal danger, Mrs. DeCarlo pointed out the patient was not even on magnesium therapy, the first step of treatment for the condition.
Ms. Carpo, the lawsuit said, was the manager on duty and could have easily stepped in as a replacement but instead threatened to charge Mrs. DeCarlo with “insubordination and patient abandonment,” charges that could have ended Mrs. DeCarlo’s career.
Mrs. DeCarlo broke down at this point and offered to get her priest on the phone to explain her point of view, says the lawsuit, but hospital officials were adamant that she participate. When she pointed out the abortion could be delayed until another nurse could be found to take part, she received more threats, the lawsuit says, until she finally capitulated, saying she would take part “under protest.”
When asked why she didn’t simply walk out of the building, one of her attorneys, Matt Bowman of the Alliance Defense Fund, said the plaintiff “strenuously protested to the point of tears. Employees should not be forced to choose between their jobs and their beliefs.”
The nurse said she was “forced to watch the doctor remove the bloody arms and legs of the child from its mother’s body with forceps” and carry those body parts in a cup to another area of the operating room.
“It felt like a horror film unfolding,” she said in a statement.
As a result of her taking part, she has undergone “extreme emotional, psychological and spiritual suffering,” the lawsuit says. The next day, she filed a grievance with her union and the hospital.
Since then, the hospital has retaliated by assigning her to fewer shifts, the lawsuit says, and officials have ordered her to sign a form indicating she will assist in future abortions if the hospital deems the situation to be an emergency occurring during her shift. She has refused.
Galen Sherwin, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union’s Reproductive Rights Project, told the New York Post that the case centers on whether a medical emergency existed.
“The law provides protections for individuals who object to performing abortions. But at the same time, health care professionals are not permitted to abandon patients,” she said.
Mrs. DeCarlo still works at the hospital.
A lawsuit represents only one point of view.
Mr. Bowman said that federal laws with conscience provisions designed to protect people like Mrs. DeCarlo have been in place since 1974.
“President Bush rightly felt the need to bolster enforcement of this law but one of the first things the Obama administration did is repeal those regulations,” he added, alluding to a series of rules designed to strengthen conscience protections for workplace employees who refuse to be complicit with abortion.
Mount Sinai Hospital ranks 29th in the country among hospitals receiving federal funds, having received more than $211 million in 2007 alone, the lawsuit says.
By receiving federal dollars, the hospital must adhere to the “Church Amendment” in the 1974 Public Health Service Act that forbids discrimination against employees who refuse to perform abortions.