by Connor Semelsberger, MPP
August 28, 2019
The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced today that they are issuing a violation notice to the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) because they forced a nurse to participate in an abortion despite a conscience objection.
In 2017, UVMMC (located in Burlington, Vt.) began performing abortions on site without notifying their employees. A nurse had expressed objection to assisting in abortions for many years, and was even included on a list of staff with objections. However, UVMMC purposefully assigned the nurse to assist in an abortion despite her objection to the horrific procedure. The nurse did not know that the procedure was an abortion until the nurse walked into the operating room and the abortionist said, “Don’t hate me.” The nurse then objected to assisting in the abortion. There were other staff on site who could have assisted with the abortion, but UVMMC forced the nurse to participate in the abortion or be subject to discipline that could include loss of licensure. In the end, the nurse decided to participate over fear of harsh retaliation by the health center.
Choosing between your sincerely-held religious or moral beliefs and your career is a decision that no health professional should have to make. When someone is pressured to violate their conscience or lose their livelihood, it leaves the health care provider in a situation that creates great emotional and spiritual turmoil. Even though abortion has been legal in America for over 40 years, our federal laws have fortunately protected the conscience rights of health care providers. In the 1970s, the Church Amendments were enacted to protect the conscience rights of individuals and entities that object to performing or assisting in the performance of abortion or sterilization if it would be contrary to the providers’ religious or moral convictions.
On May 9, 2018, the nurse from Vermont filed a complaint with the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at HHS. HHS responded by fulfilling their duties to enforce the Church Amendments and launched an investigation into the complaint, contacting UVMMC to seek cooperation, but the hospital refused to conform its policies to the law and would not produce witnesses to be interviewed about this incident. Now, UVMMC has 30 days to notify HHS that they will change their current policies that force staff to participate in abortions and take steps to remedy the effects of their past actions. If they do not comply in this timeframe, they could be barred from the $1.6 million in federal funding they received.
This is now the third conscience compliant that OCR has investigated since President Trump took office. The other complaints dealt with the states of California and Hawaii forcing pregnancy resource centers to post materials that advertise for abortion. Because of action by OCR, both complaints have been resolved. The enforcement of these conscience protections is yet another example of how the Trump administration has followed through in protecting life, conscience, and religious liberty. These enforcement actions should encourage health care providers who feel like their employer is coercing them to participate in an abortion to file a complaint with OCR, for as we see above, the Trump administration will certainly enforce our conscience laws and defend their rights.