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Feds find Vt. hospital violated conscience rights

WASHINGTON (BP) — A Vermont medical center has violated federal law by forcing a nurse to participate in an abortion and has 30 days to declare its intention to correct its policies, the Trump administration announced Wednesday (Aug. 28).

The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) disclosed it had issued a notice of violation to the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) in Burlington. The action followed an investigation into an unnamed nurse’s complaint she was forced to assist with an elective abortion despite her longstanding conscientious objection. The investigation also found the medical center had scheduled other workers to help in abortions though they had religious or moral objections, OCR reported in a news release.

UVMMC — which denied OCR’s findings — could potentially lose federal funding if it does not comply with the notice.

Religious freedom and pro-life advocates praised the federal government action.

“Everything about this situation is beyond troubling,” said Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “What we see here is deception, disregard for the law and trampling over consciences.

“More still, even those who claim to be pro-choice ought also to respect the right of a nurse to choose not to participate in something so shocking to the conscience,” Moore told Baptist Press in written comments. “I am thankful HHS officials are pursuing enforcement of the laws that protect the conscience rights of this nurse.”

In a written statement, Catherine Glenn Foster, president of Americans United for Life, applauded OCR “for taking seriously the conscience rights of healthcare providers and enforcing decades-old legal protections. … It is imperative that no employee be forced to choose between their job and their beliefs.”

Jay Sekulow — chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), which filed the complaint on behalf of the nurse — described it as “by far the most outrageous case” the organization has seen in more than two decades of defending the conscience rights of pro-life medical professionals. “Our client’s most fundamental beliefs about the sanctity of life were simply brushed aside,” he said in written remarks.

The medical center forced the nurse in 2017 to help with an abortion though she had expressed her objection for many years and was on a list of objectors, according to OCR. She was not informed the procedure would be an abortion until she entered the room, when the physician, who knew she objected to participating in an abortion, said to her, “Don’t hate me,” the OCR reported. The nurse again objected, but she was required to assist though others could have replaced her, according to OCR. The nurse “reasonably feared” the medical center would dismiss her or report her to licensing officials, the OCR reported.

While OCR did not disclose the nurse’s gender, ACLJ identified the nurse as a female. The complaint was filed with OCR in May 2018.

In its investigation, OCR interviewed other UVMMC personnel who have been “intentionally, unnecessarily, and knowingly scheduled” by the hospital to help with elective abortions despite religious or moral objections. UVMMC often declined to inform the workers in advance the procedures would be abortions, according to OCR.

UVMMC’s policy violates the Church Amendments and HHS regulations governing the receipt of federal funds, OCR reported. The Church Amendments — enacted in the 1970s and named after the late Sen. Frank Church, D-Ida. — protect health-care workers who object to performing abortion or sterilization procedures because of religious beliefs or moral convictions.

Enforcement of the Church Amendments “has, for all intents and purposes, been nonexistent,” Sekulow said. “[OCR] has, at long last, put teeth in a law that has lain largely dormant since its enactment. The repercussions of today’s action will be felt in every hospital and health care system in the country.”

In a written statement, UVMMC said its investigation of the nurse’s allegations demonstrated “they were not supported by the facts.”

It has “robust, formal protections that safeguard both our employees’ religious, ethical and cultural beliefs, and our patients’ right to access safe and legal abortion,” according to the medical center. “We do not discriminate against any employees for exercising their rights to opt out of procedures to which they object.”

The statement said the medical center had engaged with OCR in the last nine months about the complaint. It had volunteered to discuss its policies and practices, as well as to hear how it might improve them, according to UVMMC.

In its release, OCR said it contacted the medical center repeatedly “in a good faith effort to seek cooperation from UVMMC, but the hospital refused to conform its policies to federal conscience laws, provide all the documents requested by OCR, or produce witnesses for OCR interviews.”