BURLINGTON, Vt. — The Department of Justice’s (DoJ) Civil Rights Division has filed suit against the University of Vermont Medical Center for allegedly forcing a nurse to assist with an abortion against her conscience and in violation of the federal Church Amendments of the 1970s.
“Federal law protects health care providers from having to choose between their job and participation in what they sincerely believe is the taking of an innocent human life. Coercing people to perform abortions violates the law, and the U.S. Department of Justice will not stand for this shocking and outrageous attack against the right of all people in this free country to follow their conscience,” Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband said in a statement.
As previously reported, the nurse, who is not being publicly identified, was assigned to assist with an abortion despite staff knowing about her objection for years. She had placed her name on the “objectors list” and was known to both the nurse scheduler and the acting physician as being opposed to abortion.
However, the nurse was not specifically advised that she was to participate in an abortion until she walked into the operating room, at which point, the physician reportedly remarked, “Please don’t hate me.”
Upon realizing what her assignment entailed, the nurse again objected and asked that someone else take her place. But the scheduler refused, leaving the woman with the choice of either assisting against her conscience or walking away and potentially being disciplined or fired.
The nurse says she was “deeply traumatized” by the situation.
The legal complaint from the DOJ alleges that the nurse is not the only objector to be scheduled to assist with abortions, as 10 nurses on the objector’s list were assigned to participate in approximately 20 abortions.
However, the hospital has allowed nurses to opt out for other reasons, including in an instance where nurses requested not to be a part of the care team for an intoxicated driver who had killed five people.
The nurse filed a religious discrimination and conscience complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which investigated and found that the hospital’s practices violate HHS grant regulations and the federal Church Amendments, named after Democratic co-sponsor Sen. Frank Church of Idaho.
The latter states in part that “[n]o individual shall be required to perform or assist in the performance of any part of a health service program … if his performance or assistance in the performance of such part of such program or activity would be contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions.”
HHS’ Office for Civil Rights (OCR) contacted the University of Vermont Medical Center in an attempt to rectify the situation, but said that hospital officials were not cooperative.
However, the Medical Center disagreed with the characterization of the matter, telling the Burlington Free Press that officials also investigated and the allegations “are not supported by the facts.” Interim President Dr. Stephen Leffler argued that the hospital was willing to meet to officials but had never been approached about doing so.
“They threatened to take back $1.6 million for services, but we won’t be blackmailed into changing our policy,” he said. “Our hope is they don’t take the dollars back. It will harm other people who have nothing to do with this.”
Leffler explained 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 outlined, “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.”
HHS therefore forwarded the matter to the DoJ for enforcement, which in turn, has now sued the hospital on HHS’ behalf after it did not sign an offered “Agreement in Principle.”
“Even when the conscience objector objects in advance, the 2018 policy provides that the ‘supervisor/designee will assign staff as necessary for appropriate patient coverage,'” the lawsuit states. “Regardless of any previous employee objection, the 2018 policy provides that “[i]n any scenario where circumstances prevent arrangements for alternate coverage, the [objecting] staff member will be expected to provide the assigned care to ensure that patient care is not negatively impacted.”
“The 2018 policy does not require any particular measures on the part of Defendant to find alternate coverage and does not set forth a process for an objecting staff member to appeal a determination that circumstances prevent arrangements for alternate coverage,” it notates.
“No institution or person should force any health care provider to perform an abortion if doing so would violate the provider’s religious beliefs or moral convictions,” Dreiband said in a statement. “This kind of indecent coercion violates everything this country stands for.”