On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) reprimanded the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) for forcing a Catholic nurse to assist in abortions after she had made her conscientious objections clear. A further investigation found that the hospital had forced many other professionals to assist in abortions against their consciences. UVMMC has 30 days to change its policies or lose its federal funding.
“In the more than two decades of work that ACLJ has done to defend the rights of conscience of pro-life health care workers, this is by far the most outrageous case we’ve ever seen. Our client’s most fundamental beliefs about the sanctity of life were simply brushed aside,” Jay Sekulow, chief counsel at the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which filed the original complaint, said in a statement.
According to the ACLJ, the operating room nurse was “coerced into assisting in an abortion in 2017 even though her name was on a list of nurses who, for religious or moral reasons, were conscientiously opposed to such participation and even though other non-objecting nurses were available who could easily have taken her place.”
The HHS Office of Civil Rights (OCR) confirmed the complaint. Its investigation found that “UVMMC forced the nurse complainant to assist in an abortion against the nurse’s religious or moral objection. The nurse had expressed an objection for many years and was included in a list of objectors, but UVMMC knowingly assigned the nurse to an abortion procedure.”
“The nurse was not told the procedure was an abortion until the nurse walked into the room, when the doctor—knowing the nurse objected to assisting in abortions—told the nurse, ‘Don’t hate me.’ The nurse again objected, and other staff were present who could have taken the nurse’s place, but the nurse was required to assist with the abortion anyway. If the nurse had not done so, the nurse reasonably feared UVMMC would fire or report the nurse to licensing authorities,” OCR reported.
This was no isolated incident, according to the investigation. “OCR spoke with several other UVMMC health care personnel who, since at least the spring of 2017, have been intentionally, unnecessarily, and knowingly scheduled by UVMMC to assist with elective abortions against their religious or moral objections. Such personnel were often not told in advance that the procedures they were being assigned to assist with were abortions.”
“Health care personnel who are coerced in that way suffer moral injury, are subjected to a crisis of conscience, and frequently experience significant emotional distress, even if they succeed in declining to assist in the procedure after the assignment is made,” the report added.
OCR found that UVMMC had violated federal law and the Church Amendments, which were instituted in 1970 to prevent this kind of scenario. UVMMC received $1.6 million in federal assistance in the three-year period ending April 30, 2018.
“Medical professionals should never be forced to sacrifice their commitment to protecting life to serve those in need. That’s why protecting the freedom to live and work consistent with one’s conscience is critical: It is at the heart of what motivates many who enter the medical field, a profession full of individuals who dedicate their lives to healing and doing no harm,” Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) Senior Counsel Denise Burke said in a statement.
ADF is defending complainants in similar cases. “Unfortunately, nurses, doctors, and other health care providers—including ADF clients like Sandra Rojas, Fe Esperanza Racpan Vinoya and Cathy DeCarlo—have faced government discrimination and have even lost their jobs because of their commitment to saving life,” Burke lamented. “We commend the Trump administration and HHS’s Office for Civil Rights for investigating and taking corrective action against the University of Vermont Medical Center for its flawed policies and for working to ensure the civil rights and conscience rights of all Americans are protected.”
In May, the HHS under Trump finalized new rules making conscience protections like this clear. In this case, the government has stepped in to protect fundamental conscience rights. What a marvelous change after years of seeing Catholic nuns like the Little Sisters of the Poor forced to fund abortifacients.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.