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BBC: "Nurses say reform prostitute law"

BBC world edition logoApril 26, 2005 -- Today the BBC News web site posted a fairly good piece by Caroline Ryan reporting that the "overwhelming majority" of nurses at a Royal College of Nurses (RCN) conference had supported a call to end criminal prosecution of prostitutes, arguing that this would greatly increase the vulnerable population's access to health care. This is a striking example of patient advocacy, especially in view of the 19th century association of nursing with prostitution and the profession's ongoing struggle against "naughty nurse" stereotyping.

The basis for the RCN policy recommendation was the nurses' view that the "stigma" of prostitution discouraged sex workers from seeking general health care, dentistry or social services, even though prostitutes often have serious health problems. Conference delegates reportedly pointed to reforms in other nations, including Germany, Holland and Australia, creating managed zones for street prostitutes and legalizing brothels. They noted that these measures had improved the health of sex workers and reduced levels of exploitation and violence. The conference reportedly did not support full legalization of prostitution, which would have freed pimps from prosecution as well.

The piece quoted three nurses who supported the motion, and one who appeared to oppose it. Andrea Spyropoulos, who proposed the motion, stressed that it was about the health of sex workers, not the "moral, ethical and religious objections" to prostitution, and Joy Hall pointed to the impact of poor health care on the children of the sex workers. Princess Marufu seemed to oppose the motion, arguing that more should be done to address the factors that lead people to become prostitutes in the first place. Maura Buchanan, deputy president of RCN, saw the proposal as one part of a larger agenda to stop "criminalising" women and instead address "the men who abuse them," sex traffickers, and the "poverty, deprivation and drug abuse" that drive women into prostitution.

The piece might have provided some context as to the significance of this action for nursing itself, though perhaps that's expecting too much. Whether or not one agrees with the merits of this proposal, it is a striking example of community health action and policy-driven patient advocacy by the nurses. Society should hear from nurses more often on such controversial health and policy issues. Nurses have valuable perspectives on these issues, which many of them confront daily, and such advocacy will help nurses show the public that they are engaged problem-solvers who deserve adequate resources for their work. Prostitution may be a tricky subject for some nurses because of the historic association of the profession with prostitutes. Before the reforms of nursing in the 19th century, "health care" in many institutions was often provided by prostitutes and other social outcasts, a situation captured by Charles Dickens in his searing portrait of Sarah / Sairey Gamp in "Martin Chuzzlewit" (1844). Today, nurses still battle "naughty nurse" stereotyping, which discourages practicing and potential nurses, fosters sexual violence in the workplace, and contributes to a general atmosphere of disrespect. In view of all this, the RCN nurses' policy proposal appears to reflect an admirable willingness to take on important health issues that affect their patients and their society, regardless of comments they might provoke from certain quarters.

See the article by Caroline Ryan on the BBC.

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