For Some, There Is No Choice

Ambulance driver Stephanie Adamson
Ambulance driver Stephanie Adamson "got a sick feeling" when assigned to transport a patient to get an abortion. She refused, was fired, and then sued for discrimination. (By Warren Skalski For The Washington Post)
By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 16, 2006

When the dispatcher called, Stephanie Adamson knew this might be the run she had feared. But it wasn't until her ambulance arrived at the hospital and she saw the words "elective abortion" on the patient's chart that she knew she had to make a choice.

"I just got a sick feeling in my stomach," said Adamson, an emergency medical technician from Channahon, Ill.

Adamson called her boss to say she could not transport the patient to the other hospital where the procedure was scheduled.

"I just knew I couldn't do it. I've never been for abortion -- I've always been against it," Adamson said. "I was brought up in a Christian home and always believed life was precious."

Adamson's supervisor fired her on the spot and dispatched another ambulance to transfer the distraught young patient.

"It was a very long drive home," said Adamson, who sued the ambulance company in May 2004, charging religious discrimination over her 2003 dismissal. "I pretty much cried all the way. I was very upset and scared."

Many religious health workers find no conflict between their beliefs and their jobs. But others describe what amounts to a sense of siege, with the secular world increasingly demanding they capitulate to doing procedures, prescribing pills or performing tasks that they find morally reprehensible.

Beginning in medical and nursing schools, some health workers describe struggling over where to draw the line. Will they refuse to perform an abortion or a sterilization, to fill a prescription for a morning-after pill or to pull the plug on a terminally ill patient? Will they refer patients to health workers who will? Or is that tantamount to being complicit in an immoral act?

Many will discuss their experiences only with a promise of anonymity, fearing being reprimanded, fined, denied promotions or fired. Often they will speak publicly only when they have new jobs.

"I've run into major conflicts with my colleagues who don't understand my belief system," said Jan R. Hemstad, a Catholic anesthesiologist in Yakima, Wash., who will not participate in sterilizations. "I've had a colleague threaten to call the police to say I've abandoned a patient who wanted an elective sterilization."

Ultrasound technician Donald Grant of New Richmond, Wis., was fired by a Minneapolis clinic in 2002 after he prayed with a patient to try to persuade her not to get an abortion.

"I'm not a rabid pro-lifer, but I know what I believe," said Grant, also a pastor at a small Pentecostal church. "I was not condemning in any way. But I had no choice but to speak my conscience."

Pharmacist Gene Herr was fired by a drugstore in Denton, Tex., in 2004 after refusing to fill a rape victim's prescription for the morning-after pill.

"This was the worst-case scenario," Herr said. "This was the hardest decision I ever made. The heinousness of a rape is a horrible thing. But I don't think you should punish a child for the sins of the father."

Fertility specialist James D. Madden, a Catholic, will treat only married couples using their own sperm and eggs.

"I believe the optimal circumstances for a child is to have a mother and a father. They contribute different things to the offspring," said Madden, of the Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. "I've sort of picked my way through these ethical issues my whole life, and that's one I haven't gotten comfortable with."

Patrick Pullicino, a Catholic neurologist from Newark, has never agreed to withhold patients' food and fluids.

"I've had many occasions where relatives of stroke victims come up to me and say, 'She's suffering and wouldn't want to live in this state, and we want to withdraw all care,' " Pullicino said. "I've had to tell them, 'You'll have to find someone else.' I couldn't sleep at night if I did some of those things."

He also refuses to work with embryonic stem cells. "I believe it's destruction of a human life. It's wrong."

Family practitioners and obstetrician-gynecologists describe moving from town to town and being shunned by colleagues because they do not want to dispense birth control or morning-after pills or perform sterilizations or abortions. Nurses and physician assistants refuse to dispense the morning-after pill. Some doctors risk the ire of unmarried men after refusing to prescribe them Viagra.

"I am convinced that God made human beings for man-to-woman marriage, and that is where the sexual relationship should be," said an evangelical Christian who works as an internist in Baltimore. "I will not help foster that relationship outside of marriage."

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