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UMDNJ to hire staff to assist in abortions

It moved up a court hearing for a suit in which nurses say they were told to assist over their objections.

NEWARK, N.J. - A lawsuit filed by a group of nurses over abortions performed at a Newark hospital is headed back to court a week earlier than expected, after the hospital said it would hire additional staff to provide support for patients undergoing the procedure.

The 12 nurses filed a federal lawsuit last month against the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey contending that they were being forced to assist in abortions over their religious and moral objections, a violation of state and federal law. The lawsuit seeks a temporary restraining order against the hospital.

UMDNJ has denied the allegations, but on Friday it sent a letter to the nurses informing them that it would hire "additional staff to provide care to our full complement of patients."

A judge was to rule on the restraining order on Dec. 22, but now the parties are scheduled in court Dec. 16.

The dispute is multilayered, and the court filings have had an acrimonious tone.

Attorneys for the nurses contend that "UMDNJ admits that it is breaking the law. It simply asks this Court to let it do so."

Meanwhile, UMDNJ has called the lawsuit "nothing more than a vehicle to promote the antiabortion political agenda of the Alliance Defense Fund," referring to the legal organization representing the nurses.

At a news conference last month, the nurses said UMDNJ implemented a policy this fall that required them to undergo training to assist in abortions, and that they could be subject to termination if they didn't comply. The hospital has denied any nurses were threatened with termination.

UMDNJ has asserted that the nurses are required to perform "peripheral care" - such as taking blood pressure, recording medical histories and ensuring patients have arranged a ride home - for patients in the same-day surgery unit where they work, and that performing the services does not amount to assisting abortions.

UMDNJ alleged the nurses have disrupted operations at the hospital by, in one case, refusing to assist an abortion patient in the presence of that patient; and, on several occasions, e-mailing and texting an assistant nursing manager that they will pray for her, and singing hymns in the workplace when they saw the assistant manager.

Partly at issue is the Church Amendment, passed after Roe v. Wade legalized abortions in 1973. It prohibits entities that receive public funds from being forced to perform abortions if they object on moral or religious grounds, and prohibits those entities from discriminating against individuals who perform (or choose not to perform) the procedure for similar reasons. UMDNJ asserts individuals can't use the law to sue in federal court.

Attorneys for both sides didn't immediately return phone messages Wednesday seeking comment.