Nurses, Social Responsibility, Human Rights, and Activism
Written by NurseKeith
Monday, 26 May 2008
While nursing is seen by many as an inherently political act in and of itself, and while nurses have advocated for the poor for centuries, this article explores how nurses have organized for the betterment of society, and whether nurse-centric organizations exist---or have existed---akin to Doctors Without Borders or Physicians for Social Responsibility.
For decades, Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), Doctors of the World , Partners in Health (PIH), and Medicins Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) have played crucial roles as advocates for human rights worldwide. With cultural clout, economic power, name recognition, and the admiration of millions, several of these organizations---especially MSF---frequently deliver reports and news conferences which garner enormous global media attention. MSF is also an incredibly effective front-line organization which well deserves the praise lavished upon it.
Since the politically-charged 1960’s and 1970’s---when many medical students and young doctors were radicalized---a small but mighty cadre of progressive, politically savvy doctors with an interest in human rights have spear-headed many important and memorable movements in the interest of serving those most in need, from refugees to inner-city American children. I admire these groups, and actually long to eventually count myself among their rank and file, serving refugees or other vulnerable groups worldwide.
As for nurses, many volunteer with MSF, PIH, and PSR to do their part in making the world safer for those vulnerable individuals most in need of medical care and advocacy. That said, the purpose of this article is to explore if, when, and how nurses have themselves organized into nurse-centric organizations to address similar concerns of human rights and social responsibility, and/or whether nurses need to create their own organizations vis-a-vis these vital human issues.
Over the years, I have noticed that nurses are quick to organize around a specific legislative agenda centered in the US, whether it be universal healthcare, safe staffing ratios for hospitals, or recruitment of nursing students during the all-too-familiar nursing shortage. This legislative agenda is indeed country-specific, and does indeed benefit patients as much---or more---than it benefits nurses on the front line. However, what I am seeking is evidence of nurses organizing within the nursing community itself in response to injustice, inhumane treatment, war, genocide, famine, widespread disease, or other global crises. Thus, for the purpose of this article, I set about searching the Internet for information on nurses and their work for human rights and social justice.
As for web searches, Googling “nurses without borders” brings one to a site offering several links to articles on the jailing of nurses in Bulgaria, as well as a very interesting article about a nurse who works for Doctors Without Borders . Still, it seems “Nurses Without Borders” simply exists as a dead-end web address and has never appeared to exist as an actual entity or organization in an of itself, as opposed to Engineers Without Borders , Reporters Without Borders , among others.
Moving on, a Google search of “nurses and human rights” brings the earnest surfer to Nurses for Human Rights , an excellent site specifically dedicated to the health and well-being of children and adults as they interface with the medical and psychiatric systems. While the site is narrow in focus, it addresses very important issues of human rights, especially in terms of children’s health.
In terms of searching on the Internet for articles on “nurses and activism”, a NurseWeek article highlights nurses who have pioneered Sexual Assault Response Teams (SART) in Texas, championed the improvement of low immunization rates for children, and worked to prevent Shaken Baby Syndrome.
According to the same NurseWeek article, “nurses have been activists since medieval times, when members of religious and secular nursing orders looked after lepers, orphaned children, and poor men and women whose families couldn’t or wouldn’t care for them. Nurse activists of previous centuries, including Florence Nightingale, Dorothea Dix, and Margaret Sanger, pushed for and achieved tremendous health care improvements in their lifetimes.” Nursing history is filled with individuals such as Lillian Wald and her Henry Street Settlement , which addressed issues of inner city poverty in radical and effective ways.
However, NurseWeek is also quick to point out that “in these days of heavy workloads, increasingly sicker patients and the demands of balancing work and family lives, many nurses find it hard to get through a work week, much less push for change or look for ways to give back to their communities.”
Still other articles argue that nursing is innately a political act in and of itself, elucidating the role that nursing has played vis-a-vis labor activism , or calling strongly for increased education of nursing students regarding how to influence public policy through civic participation.
My cursory searches have revealed that no organizations exist which exactly mirror PSR and MSF. Groups of nurses have seemingly not coalesced around issues forcefully enough to form independent non-profit organizations with progressive political or social agendas apart from regional, national or provincial professional nursing organizations.
As nurses, do we need organizations beyond the ANA and its regional counterparts through which nurses can make their collective voices heard? Is it enough for nurses to join MSF or PSR and be, as it were, participants in well-funded and progressive organizations founded and run by doctors? Are nurses less politically progressive than doctors? Do nurses simply work too hard? Do nurses have the will and desire to belong to groups that take strong stands for or against various issues and causes? Does the world need organizations such as “Nurses Without Borders”, “Nurses of the World”, or “Nurses for Human Rights”? Is there funding, political will, organizational will, and time and energy for such endeavors? And if there is the will, who will make it happen?
For myself, I have wondered if I personally have the energy to be the founder of such an organization. Do I have the resources, the skills, the desire, the time to undertake the quest? I also ask myself if nurses are ready for such a leap, if such organizations are truly necessary, or if they would simply be redundant? Could I truly garner enough support, funding, and membership to make such an organization viable?
Perusing the websites of MSF, PSR, and PHR, it would be a daunting effort to equal such solid organizational and global presence. Is my nurse’s ego bruised that it takes physicians---with their economic and cultural clout---to coalesce such efforts? Or am I happy enough to simply ride on the coattails of physicians and join in their well-organized and well-funded efforts?
As a hard-working nurse, stretched in many areas of my life, I conclude from my present vantage point and research that I would not choose to form an organization that would simply weakly echo the stances of PSR and MSF. While I lament the fact that nurses generally join physician-run progressive organizations rather than found their own, I admit that I too simply do not have the time or will to do what it takes to enjoin nurses across the country and around the world to join together under yet another banner. I also honestly wonder if there are enough politically progressive activist nurses willing to take up arms (so to speak) against the vast inequities and pervasive violence facing the world.
I can safely conclude that nurses are indeed activists, but nurse activism is operationalized in daily life, both at home and at work. In the course of their work, nurses advocate, educate, support and care for individuals across the lifespan. Under the auspices of the American Nurses Association and the various regional nurse organizations, nurses do indeed use their collective voice to push legislative agendas which are deemed germane and timely. Still, the ANA and AMA are limited in scope as professional organizations, taking no apparent position on issues such as genocide, famine, refugees, political strife, torture, or the war in Iraq.
As for nurse-run organizations akin to MSF or PSR, I have found no conclusive evidence that such organizations exist. Thus, I believe that nurses such as myself who have interest in such work will continue to join physician-led organizations in order to satisfy the desire for politically progressive work with a bias towards global justice and humanitarianism, or at least until some enterprising and well-meaning nurse---or group of nurses---decides that a nurse-run humanitarian organization is the key to fulfilling our ambitions of a more global activism for nurses.
NurseKeith is a blogger, nurse, writer, and consultant. Please feel free to visit his blog, Digital Doorway .