Politics & Policy

A War on Women’s Health

Employment discrimination against a pro-life midwife

Because it’s usually hidden beneath excuses, justifications, and pretexts, employer discrimination can be difficult to uncover. Not for Sara Hellwege [Hell-VAY-guh]. The aspiring nurse-midwife’s potential employer, a federally funded health center in Tampa, Fla., made its reason for not hiring her unmistakably clear: “Due to the fact . . . you are a member of AAPLOG [the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists], we would be unable to move forward in the interviewing process.” Hellwege, with the aid of Alliance Defending Freedom, a legal organization that focuses on religious-freedom violations, has filed suit against the Tampa Family Health Centers, Inc. (TFHC), for violating both federal and state law.

Toward the end of April, Hellwege — who graduated in June from Frontier Nursing University, a distance-learning institution based in Hyden, Ky. — e-mailed Chad Lindsey, director of human resources for TFHC, inquiring about available certified nurse-midwife positions. She expressed interest in working at a “NHSC site,” i.e., an affiliate of the National Health Service Corps, which for the last four decades has focused on providing health care to underserved communities.

After a few e-mails back and forth, Lindsey asked about Hellwege’s membership in AAPLOG: “Would this be a reason for you to decline and [sic] interview if offered one?” “Due to religious guidelines,” Hellwege responded, “I am able to counsel women regarding all forms of contraception, however, cannot Rx [prescribe] it unless pathology exists.” In his next e-mail, Lindsey announced that the hiring process could not go forward. When Hellwege e-mailed him to inquire further, he never responded.

Hellwege and Matt Bowman, senior legal counsel with ADF and one of Hellwege’s attorneys, contend that TFHC violated 42 U.S. Code § 300a–7d, which states:

No individual shall be required to perform or assist in the performance of any part of a health service program or research activity funded in whole or in part under a program administered by the Secretary of Health and Human Services if his performance or assistance in the performance of such part of such program or activity would be contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions.

This anti-discrimination provision has existed since 1974. Hellwege maintains that TFHC is also in violation of Florida state law, which has similar provisions. Additionally, Hellwege’s attorneys have filed a Title VII religious-discrimination complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and a Federal Tort Claims Act complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services, since HHS supervises Tampa’s and other Title X family-planning centers.

By all indications, Hellwege’s legal case is about as straightforward as they come. But the legal issues are irrelevant in the feminist blogosphere, where Hellwege has been savagely attacked. Salon casually misrepresented the law in its headline: “Nurse won’t prescribe birth control, sues because she didn’t get a job that requires prescribing birth control.” The federal and state statutes cited above make clear that no job can “require” prescribing birth control. Moral convictions are constitutionally protected.

But the most vicious attack came from Kaili Joy Gray at the relentlessly charmless left-wing blog Wonkette, who suggested Hellwege “take the hint already and go join a nunnery,” and summarized the lawsuit as “some seriously f***ed up repugnant bulls***” concocted by the “Religious Right” “to infiltrate women’s health care and then refuse to provide women’s health care.”

But there is no conspiracy here — the law, at both federal and state levels, is clear, which perhaps explains its curious absence from the discussion at Salon and Wonkette — nor is there an effort to “refuse to provide women’s health care.” Hellwege studied a field of care — midwifery — that is strictly for women, and she voluntarily sought out a position where she could serve poor women who often receive subpar care.

“The Left’s mantra of access is hollow,” says Bowman, “because they want to deprive women of access to good, qualified nurses — like Sara.” Bowman hopes that TFHC will admit wrongdoing and give Hellwege the chance to interview. If not, she and ADF are prepared to pursue their case using all available legal means.

“Many women want a pro-life midwife or nurse or doctor,” he adds. “If the federal government can discriminate, women will have no options. There needs to be diversity among health providers, including religious and moral diversity that allows patients to have access to professionals who share their values.”

No doubt it is lost on the writers attacking Hellwege that the real victim of their tirades is not Hellwege but the freedom of underserved women to decide whom they want at their bedside.

— Ian Tuttle is a William F. Buckley Jr. fellow at National Review.


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