BURLINGTON, Vt. (ChurchMilitant.com) - After a hospital was discovered forcing nurses to perform abortions, Trump's administration becomes the first to enforce decades-old conscience protections enacted after Roe v. Wade.
On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Office for Civil Rights (OCR) issued a notice of violation to the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) that it broke federal law by forcing a nurse to assist in an abortion procedure against her religious convictions in 2017.
After an investigation, the OCR concluded: "UVMMC is violating 42 U.S.C. § 300a-7(c)(1) of the Church Amendments by discriminating against health-care personnel who have religious or moral objections to abortion, and subjecting them to different terms or conditions of employment than other health-care personnel."
This marks the first time the Church Amendment, or conscience clause, has been enforced since it was implemented in 1973 after Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationwide. The amendment was named for the late Democratic senator Frank Church who co-sponsored the bill with Republican John Heinz that was originally written to prevent the government from forcing religiously affiliated hospitals to perform abortions.
American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), who is representing the nurse, said the Church Amendment "has always lacked a mechanism for enforcement by private citizens" and has relied on the HHS to take action.
"In the decades since 1973, however, such enforcement has, for all intents and purposes, been nonexistent," ACLJ notes. "With today's announcement, HHS's Office of Civil Rights has, at long last, put teeth in a law that has lain largely dormant since its enactment."
Continuing, the ACLJ notes this action "is an enormous step forward toward the full protection of conscience rights of all those in the health care field who recognize the sanctity of all human life," adding, "The repercussions of today's action will be felt in every hospital and health care system in the country."
According to the complaint, the nurse, who is Catholic, had previously notified the hospital that her religious beliefs could not allow her to participate in abortions.
However, she claims she was coerced into performing an abortion when a doctor knowingly misled her to believe she was requested to assist with a procedure for a miscarriage. When she entered the operating room, the doctor allegedly said "please don't hate me" when it was apparent it was a live baby they were about to abort.
She asked to be excused but was denied by the doctor. Fearing a charge of "patient abandonment" that would strip her of her license, she participated in the procedure "under duress."
The complaint records, "She suffered immediate emotional distress, attempted to suppress the event psychologically, and has been haunted by nightmares ever since."
In October 2017, the hospital board instituted a policy change expanding abortion services to include those that were elective. Previously, the hospital limited abortions to only those considered "medically necessary."
ACLJ noted that there were at least four other nurses that believed they were also coerced into performing abortions. They suspected the hospital could have been performing elective abortions prior to the official change. Both accusations were confirmed by the OCR investigation that noted:
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.
The complaint notes UVMMC's policy change corresponded with the appointment of a board member "with decades-long experience in senior leadership of Planned Parenthood facilities in Vermont, Portland, Oregon, and New York City."
A report in the Burlington Free Press confirmed that UVMMC Trustee Allie Stickney was at one time the CEO of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England.
They reported, "Stickney has made a career out of abortion advocacy, taking top-level positions within the Planned Parenthood network," and questioned whether her presence on the hospital board represented a conflict of interest.
Additionally, UVMMC's former president, Eileen Whalen, was also an abortion activist. In 2018, UVMMC joined a coalition of health care organizations protesting the Trump administration's plan to remove Title X money for family services to abortion providers.
Whalen spoke out directly against the rule saying, "While the UVM Medical Center's funding is not directly impacted by this new rule, we are concerned that it would restrict access to care for our patients, their families and neighbors."
The OCR investigation also found the hospital's "Conflict of Care" policy also violates the Church Amendment "because the policy admits to circumstances where UVMMC can and will force staff — on pain of adverse action or discipline — to participate in abortions against their moral or religious objections."
OCR Director Roger Severino said in the OCR statement, "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."
"We do not want a society where on the issue of life and death people are forced to violate their deepest-held beliefs," Severino told reporters. He added witness interviews provided them with "more than sufficient evidence to support our notice of violation."
The hospital replied to the notice in a statement: "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."
UVMMC has 30 days to prove that it will not force health care workers to violate their religious convictions. If they cannot or refuse to cooperate, the Health Resources and Services Administration will begin a review process that could ultimately strip the hospital of government funding.
UVMMC has received $1.6 million in federal funding in the past three years.