BURLINGTON, Vt. — The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has sided with a nurse who filed a complaint in May 2018 against the University of Vermont Medical Center after she was allegedly forced to assist with an abortion despite her moral objections. The hospital denies the allegations, but admits that its policy may require nurses to assist in emergency situations despite their desire to opt out.
“Forcing medical staff to assist in the taking of human life inflicts a moral injury on them that is not only unnecessary and wrong, it violates longstanding federal law,” Roger Severino, the director of HHS’ Office of Civil Rights, said in a statement.
“Our investigation has uncovered serious discrimination by UVMMC against nurses and staff who cannot, in good conscience, assist in elective abortions,” he noted. “We stand ready to assist UVMMC in changing its policies and procedures to respect conscience rights and remedy the effects of its discrimination.”
According to a press release from HHS, the nurse — who is not being publicly identified — was assigned to assist with an abortion despite staff knowing about her objection for years. She was not specifically advised that she was to participate in an abortion until she walked into the room, at which point, the acting physician remarked, “Don’t hate me.”
Upon realizing what her assignment entailed, the nurse again objected, but was allegedly forced to assist. She told HHS that she feared if she did not comply, she would either lose her job or be reported to her licensing agency.
The Office of Civil Rights investigated and found that other personnel had been assigned to assist with abortions, without knowing in advance and despite their stated religious or moral objections.
It also discovered that the medical center has a policy that requires staff to participate in certain situations despite their desire to opt out, which violates federal law — specifically the Church Amendments — as well as HHS grant regulations.
HHS says the the University of Vermont Medical Center has not been cooperative in providing requested documents, but is giving the healthcare facility 30 days to advise the government of its willingness to amend its policy or be subject to potential loss of its federal funding.
Vermont Medical Center told the Burlington Free Press that it feels it is being “blackmailed” into changing its policy.
“They threatened to take back $1.6 million for services, but we won’t be blackmailed into changing our policy,” Interim President Dr. Stephen Leffler said. “Our hope is they don’t take the dollars back. It will harm other people who have nothing to do with this.”
Leffler said that employees can opt out of objectionable procedures, but if a “critical situation” arises, such as one that is deemed life-threatening, they may be asked to assist regardless.
“We do everything in our power to make sure people who want to opt out can,” he explained, “but our policy is built with patient protection in mind.”
“They believe people should have the 100 percent option to opt out, even if it puts a patient’s life at risk,” Leffler added. “We disagree with that.”
Leffler also disagreed with the HHS characterization of the situation, stating that the medical center investigated the matter and the allegations “are not supported by the facts.” He also argued that the hospital is willing to meet to officials but has never been approached about doing so.
“The University of Vermont Medical Center has robust, formal protections that safeguard both our employees’ religious, ethical and cultural beliefs, and our patients’ rights to access safe and legal abortion,” the facility said in a statement on Wednesday.
“We nonetheless remain willing to work cooperatively with OCR to identify any ways in which we can further support our employees’ conscience and religious rights, in a manner that is consistent with high-quality patient care, and the other legal and ethical obligations we have to our patients.”