The Ethical Dilemma of Nurses Who Face Religious Objections


By Katelynne Shepard, contributor

When you're dealing with religious objections as a nurse, it can be difficult to balance providing care and respecting someone's personal beliefs. And that's true whether the objection comes from the patient or a member of the healthcare team. Nurses get into this field to help patients get better, and it can be frustrating when an ethical dilemma complicates this. But understanding where religious objections happen and what can be done about them can help nurses be more prepared.

Religious objections as a nurse

While most nurses are aware of what they're going to be required to do as part of their job duties, there are times when an objection can come up. Some of the most common of these have to deal with abortions, gender reassignment surgeries and assisted suicide. While in the past, there might not have been much a nurse with a religious objection could do, the new religious exemption law for healthcare workers has created some options.

The law, finalized by the Department of Health and Human Services in 2019, allows healthcare workers, including nurses, to opt out of being a part of the treatment team for patients who are undergoing certain procedures if that worker has a strong religious objection to the treatment. Lawsuits were almost immediately brought about questioning the legality of the new rule and how it would affect patient care for certain populations.

While the law does allow nurses to refuse to participate in these treatments or any aspect involving it — such as pre-treatment counseling or post-op care — it's not clear how this could affect the nurse's position within a facility. One way to keep this from becoming an issue is to choose a nursing niche where it simply doesn't come up. It may also be a good idea to avoid niches that cover a variety of treatments and situations, such as the ER or the operating room, if you have strong religious objections to certain procedures.

If you feel like your current position isn't fitting well with your personal morals or religious beliefs, it may be time for a new assignment. Browse travel nurse positions on to find open jobs that let you take your nursing skills on the road.

Dealing with patients' objections

Patients are usually considered to be in complete control of their medical care and have the right to refuse treatment. However, this can often put the healthcare staff in the difficult situation of knowing they can help a patient but not being able to. There are many reasons why a patient may object to a treatment, including fear, a desire to minimize medical interventions and religious beliefs.

In situations where fear of a treatment or just not wanting to be poked and prodded is the problem, taking the time to actively listen to the patient's concerns and showing empathy can go a long way to getting patient cooperation. Taking the time to educate them about the procedure in layman's terms and providing compromises when at all possible can make the patient more comfortable and may change their minds about accepting treatment.

Religious objections, however, can be more difficult to overcome. One common example is a patient who needs a blood transfusion but their religious beliefs prohibit it. This can create a problem in treating a severely anemic patient, and it can be life-threatening in the case of a patient bleeding out on the operating table.

In one of these cases, such as a pediatric patient who needs blood during a surgery but the family objects, the surgeon may be able to declare it an emergency. By doing this, the surgeon is able to overrule the parents' wishes in the moment because it is a life or death situation. In cases where the threat to life is not imminent, the doctor can call for an ethics review, which is conducted by a specialized committee to determine if the treatment will proceed.

Anytime someone has an objection to treatment, it can be difficult to find the middle ground and come up with a resolution. While this may not always be possible, practicing active listening and being respectful can help you continue to provide the highest-quality patient care in any situation.

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