Susan (1995) – USA

Pregnant woman at risk of fatal bleeding was refused treatment by religious nurse

In 1995, Susan Johnson (a pseudonym) arrived at a New Jersey hospital emergency department eighteen weeks pregnant, standing in a pool of blood. An ultrasound revealed that she suffered from a complete placenta previa, a condition that could become fatal to both Johnson and her fetus. Doctors believed that she faced a high risk of suffering a severe and possibly fatal bleeding episode, as she already had two bleeding episodes in the last 48 hours. The attending physician called for an emergency cesarean section.

The labor and delivery nurse on duty, Yvonne Shelton, was asked to aid in the procedure but she refused, citing her faith that prevented her from “participating ‘directly or indirectly in ending a life.’” But staffing cutbacks had left a limited number of nurses available to step in, and Shelton’s refusal delayed the surgery for a dangerous thirty minutes, jeopardizing Johnson’s health and life.

This was not the first time Shelton had refused to assist in an emergency obstetrical procedure. In October of 1994, a pregnant woman, Trisha Williams (a pseudonym), had arrived at the hospital with a ruptured membrane, a condition the hospital considered life-threatening. In an effort to save Williams and her fetus, the attending physician decided to induce labor. Fearing that the fetus would not survive the delivery, Shelton asserted a religious objection and refused to carry out her duties as a nurse. At the time of this incident, there were enough nurses assigned to Shelton’s shift to allow the hospital to accommodate Shelton’s refusal, but that was not the case for Susan Johnson. Although the hospital subsequently tried to accommodate Shelton’s religious beliefs by offering a transfer to another nursing position, she declined and the hospital fired her. Shelton later sued the hospital but the court ruled against her, holding that the hospital had made reasonable efforts to accommodate her religious beliefs while still fulfilling its duty to “provide treatment in time of emergency.”

Read full article: Religious Refusals and Reproductive Rights, ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, 2002, pg 16