From Forcing Nuns to Freeing Nurses: HHS Makes About-Face on Religious Liberty

By John Stonestreet and Shane Morris | August 30, 2019 | 11:18am EDT
(Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)

According to the records, in Fiscal Year 2018 the U.S. Health and Human Services Civil Rights Office received over a thousand complaints, alleging conscience violations or religious discrimination. That’s significantly more than in any year recorded under the previous presidential administration.

One complaint came from a Catholic nurse working at the University of Vermont Medical Center. The unnamed nurse claims that her employer forced her to take part in an abortion, though she had informed the hospital of her pro-life beliefs. The nurse was scheduled to help a patient who had suffered a miscarriage, but when she walked into the operating room, she was expected to assist with an elective abortion. The doctor in charge allegedly said to her, “Don’t hate me.”

This is a university medical center that didn’t even practice elective abortions throughout most of its history, but a new rule instated in 2017 changed that and gave management the power to punish staffers who refuse to participate.

According to what are known as the Church Amendments, healthcare personnel have “an unqualified right … to decline to participate in abortions without fear of adverse employment actions or loss of staff privileges.”

Under the Obama Administration, HHS ignored these laws. In fact, according to Roger Severino, who currently directs the Office of Civil Rights at HHS, the previous administration “systematically neglected” to enforce them.

Not anymore. On Wednesday, Severino issued a notice of violation against the Medical Center, giving them thirty days to comply with the law and allow medical staff to opt-out of abortions, or lose federal funding.

The hospital isn’t cooperating. In a statement, they claim HHS lacks the authority to conduct such an investigation, and that the hospital’s forced abortion policy strikes “the appropriate and legal balance” between employees’ religious rights and patient care.

According to Severino, there isn’t a balance to strike. As he told The Atlantic, “Religious-freedom laws are the ones mentioned in the very first amendment to the Constitution. They have pride of place. And they have been neglected for too long.”

And get what he said next: “America reached a consensus after Roe v. Wade … Nobody should be forced to participate in [an abortion] against their will … How could we countenance a situation where we allow a federally funded entity to force a medical professional to participate in taking a human life? That’s what this case is about.”

I cannot even imagine anyone working in the previous HHS saying those words. During the Obama Administration, former Health and Human Services secretary Kathleen Sebelius mandated that all employers, with very few exceptions, provide free contraceptives and abortion-inducing drugs as part of their employee health insurance. In fact, they argued all the way to the Supreme Court that the Little Sisters of the Poor, a group of nuns, should be forced to comply with that mandate.

From forcing nuns to freeing nurses? Times have changed.

This isn’t just a win for conscience rights and the First Amendment, it vividly demonstrates that elections matter. People are policy, which means, worldview matters. The law can be super clear, but if executive branch appointees are unwilling to enforce it, our freedoms are at stake.

And this story also demonstrates that cultural engagement is worth it. As Severino said, Americans have reached a consensus in the last forty years: No one should be forced to participate in abortions against their will.

With so many things in our culture going from unthinkable to unquestionable, it’s nice to see abortion move in the opposite direction. If and when an administration hostile to preborn life moves back in the White House, there’s still a forty year movement committed to protecting preborn life already in motion, and it’s changing hearts and minds.

I thank God the HHS is under new management. Protecting nurses from violating their consciences is an infinite improvement over forcing nuns to violate theirs.

John Stonestreet is President of The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview and BreakPoint co-host.

G. Shane Morris is a senior writer at BreakPoint, a program of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. He’s also written for Summit Ministries and The Christian Post, and blogs regularly at Patheos. Shane lives with his wife and three children.

Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by BreakPoint.

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