WASHINGTON – A Catholic nurse is suing New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital and some members of its medical staff, charging that her conscience rights were violated when she was compelled to help with a late-term abortion last year.

A lawsuit filed Apr 29 on behalf of Catherina Cenzon-DeCarlo alleges that the nurse’s conscience rights under state law were violated by her forced participation in a late-term, non-emergency abortion in May 2009, despite the fact that Cenzon-DeCarlo had notified the hospital of her religious objections to abortion before she was hired in 2004.
Another lawsuit charging a violation of Cenzon-DeCarlo’s conscience rights under federal law was filed last year.

Although focused on one nurse and one abortion, the suits have wider implications for implementation of the new health reform law – which the U.S. Catholic bishops contend does not adequately protect conscience rights.

It also could affect a pending decision by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on whether to rescind conscience protection regulations put in place during the final days of the administration of President George W. Bush. President Barack Obama has indicated he supports rescinding the regulations, and HHS has asked for comments but has not formally taken action.

Cenzon-DeCarlo is being represented in the case by attorneys for the Alliance Defense Fund, an Arizona-based Christian legal alliance dedicated to defending religious liberty, sanctity of life, marriage and the family.

“Pro-life nurses shouldn’t be forced to assist in abortions against their beliefs,” said Matt Bowman, the defense fund’s legal counsel. “It is illegal, unethical and a violation of Cathy’s rights of conscience as a devout Catholic to require her to participate in terminating the life of a 22-week preborn child. It was not only wrong, it was needless.”

Cenzon-DeCarlo, whose uncle is a Catholic bishop in her native Philippines, said her participation in the abortion was required by several of her superiors on the medical staff despite the fact that the case had not been deemed an emergency under hospital procedures and that there were other nurses available to assist who did not object to abortions.

The nurse “has suffered emotional and psychological trauma from being forced to assist in the abortion” and has been subject to financial losses because she is no longer scheduled for as many on-call assignments that supplement her income as she was before the abortion, the lawsuits allege.

In a letter last year, attorneys representing Mount Sinai Hospital urged U.S. District Chief Judge Raymond J. Dearie of Brooklyn, N.Y., to dismiss the lawsuit because the Church amendment – named for Sen. Frank Church and prohibiting entities receiving federal funds from discriminating against healthcare personnel who refuse to participate in sterilisation or abortion procedures because of their religious beliefs or moral convictions – “does not grant individual litigants a private right of action”.

In a brief responding to that claim, attorneys for the Alliance Defense Fund said a federal court in 2008 “not only recognised an individual right, but allowed the plaintiff (in that case an abortion supporter) to seek punitive damages”.

“Mount Sinai’s actions are a quintessential example of discriminating in employment and privileges on condition that Mrs. DeCarlo violate her objection to abortion,” the brief said.

By Nancy Frazier O’Brien

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