When Reality Becomes Satire: Anti-Contraception Nurse Sues Family Planning Clinic For Not Hiring Her

Originally posted on the Gender & Sexuality Law Blog on July 24, 2014.

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. 

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