And now for an exercise in absurdity: a nurse who refuses to prescribe contraception is suing a family planning clinic because it refused to hire her. It refused to hire her for a very simple reason, which probably seems obvious: It’s a family planning clinic, and she refused to perform family planning services. Rather than take that as a fairly reasonable basis for rejection, and conclude that perhaps she would be happier and of more use in a different context (a crisis pregnancy center, perhaps), the nurse decided to sue the clinic, claiming that it discriminated against her on the basis of her religion. As the Huffington Post reported:

Sara Hellwege, a nurse in Tampa, Fla., applied for a job at Tampa Family Health Centers in May 2014. The organization receives federal Title X family planning funds, which means that it must provide women contraception and other family planning services. But Hellwege is a member of the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, and told health center staff that she would not be willing to prescribe birth control if she were hired for the job.

It’s almost hard to take this seriously, since it reads like an article from The Onion. But it’s not satire, it’s real life. And it’s the entirely predictable consequence of the isolation and stigmatization of contraception and abortion. Over the past several decades abortion has been singled out from other medical services and tainted with social stigma and controversy, even though it’s a basic health care service that approximately one in three American women will use by the age of 45. And now contraception is in danger of the same fate – the proliferation of religious objections to contraception, like those that featured in the Hobby Lobby litigation, conflates contraception with abortion and attempts to transform contraception from a health care necessity used by 99 percent of sexually active American women (aged 15-44) at some point in their lives to a socially controversial morally stigmatized landmine in the so-called “culture wars.” That’s no conspiracy theory – it’s the basis of the argument in the lawsuit, in fact: the plaintiff argues that contraception causes abortion, and that she is legally protected from discrimination on the basis of her refusal to perform abortions.

This nurse should lose her lawsuit, and not only because nurses should understand basic reproductive biology, especially if they want to work in reproductive health. If there was ever a good reason for declining to hire someone, it’s that the person refuses to perform the job for which they want to be hired. It’s particularly ironic that some houses of worship and religiously-affiliated non-profit organizations want an exemption to anti-discrimination laws allowing them to discriminate in favor of hiring co-religionists in certain settings. If the Catholic Church should be free to hire only Catholics, shouldn’t a family planning clinic be free to hire only people who actually believe in using – and will agree to dispense – family planning? Here’s hoping the court hearing her case has a sense of the absurd.


Kara Loewentheil is the Director of the Public Rights / Private Conscience Project and a Research Fellow at Columbia Law School. You can find out more about the Project at http://web.law.columbia.edu/gender-sexuality/public-rights-private-conscience-project 


  1. […] the anti-contraception nurse who sued Planned Parenthood for refusing to hire […]

  2. This story is almost funny — certainly it has the absurdism to go the distance — except that the bizarro is a feature, not a bug.

    The people who believe in the god of Abraham know, on some level, how ridiculous their faith looks. How absurd it is from five feet away. So they work tirelessly to inject that same absurdity into all other aspects of the culture that intersect in some way with their religion.

    Women’s rights, gay rights, any time the rights of someone come up against the views of religious people, they are subject to this kind of insanity. “God Hates Fags, and we will picket the funerals of murdered children to tell you so.” Sure it looks crazy, and sure it IS crazy, but crazy like a fox.

    These folks are the vanguard. We’ll never have a national conversation about taxing church profits as long as we’re reeling in horror at the excesses of the Phelps gang or anti-health care protesters outside clinics. We’ll never have a national conversation about allowing atheism into politics as long as we’re getting sued by craft stores that hate women, or nurses who hate health services. It goes on and on.

    The lunatics keep the conversation at the fringes, far away from the giant, glaring truth at the center: organized religions are founded on prejudice and fairy tales, and yet dictate the progress of our civilization.

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