By Kathleen Gilbert

NEW YORK, May 5, 2010 ( – The president of a New York hospital has reversed punishment against eight nurses who refused to take part in an abortion, and has issued an apology to some of them, reported Newsday on Thursday. However, there remains question as to whether the hospital would have persisted in coercing the nurses, in conflict with New York and federal law, had the patient's case been accurately deemed an “emergency situation.”

“We erred in our personnel actions, have apologized to several of the nurses and will do so with the others, as well. They did nothing wrong,” Nassau University Medical Center (NUMC) President Arthur Gianelli said Tuesday.

Gianelli said that the nurses were off the hook because the patient was not actually in a life-threatening situation, despite the fact that the director of perinatal nursing had originally believed that she was. The hospital is reportedly refining a new policy that, in the words of Newsday, “defines more clearly when a health care worker can refuse to take part in a nonemergency procedure. It also says the attending physician must declare and document a medical emergency.”

The hospital's current policy on staff's right of refusal to perform or assist in certain health services states that, “NuHealth employees have the right not to perform or assist in Health Services that are contrary to their conscience or religious beliefs.”

However, it goes on to state in a section entitled “exceptions,” that, “The foregoing provisions do not apply during a medical emergency.” It also states: “If an individual's conscience or religious beliefs cannot be reasonably accommodated without undue hardship, NHCC may exclude individuals who object to Health Services from employment in positions for which the performance of such services is a necessary and substantial responsibility.”

NUMC confirmed to (LSN) the accuracy of the Newsday report, but declined to comment when asked about their policy or whether they would force medical staff to participate in abortion in an “emergency situation.”

Matt Bowman of the Alliance Defense Fund, however, pointed out that both New York law and federal law “make it illegal for a regulated hospital to force objecting employees in any circumstances to assist abortions. There is no exception letting the hospital sometimes coerce pro-life health professionals when it wants to, such as if the abortion doctor thinks the abortion is necessary.”

“The reason these laws don't sometimes allow coercion against pro-life workers is because abortion doctors believe all abortions are medically necessary,” Bowman told LSN in an email.

“Abortion itself was illegal shortly before these laws were passed – it is anathema to American religious freedom to think pro-life workers could sometimes be forced to assist abortion,” he continued. “Even in high risk pregnancies where delivery is needed, directly killing the child is never needed, and pro-life health workers are always willing to help try to save both mother and child. There's no medical or legal reason to let hospitals force someone to help kill a child.”

While refraining from specific comment on Nassau's policy, Bowman noted that, unlike the policy, “The laws I cited don't have exceptions.”