HHS Warns Vt. Medical Center After it Allegedly 'Forced a Nurse to Assist in Abortion'

By Michael W. Chapman | August 29, 2019 | 1:47pm EDT
(OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) -- On Wednesday, the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) for the Department of Health and Human Services issued a Notice of Violation letter to the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) because it allegedly forced a nurse to assist in an abortion in violation of her conscience. The OCR demanded that the Medical Center comply with the conscience law or face potential loss of its federal funding, the last cycle of which totaled $1.6 million. 

“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," said OCR Director Roger Severino. "Our investigation has uncovered serious discrimination by UVMMC against nurses and staff who cannot, in good conscience, assist in elective abortions.” 

“We stand ready to assist UVMMC in changing its policies and procedures to respect conscience rights and remedy the effects of its discrimination," said Severino.

University of Vermont Medical Center. (Google)

According to the OCR letter, a nurse at the Medical Center filed a conscience and religious discrimination complaint on May 9, 2018. The complaint contended that the nurse "was forced to assist an abortion in violation of the nurse’s conscience rights."

The OCR subsequently contacted the Medical Center on multiple occasions for more information "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," states the letter. 

Despite the Medical Center's apparent lack of cooperation, OCR continued its investigation and reported the following,

-- "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.'"

-- "[T]he 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 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."

(Sergio Anelli / Electa / Mondadori Portfolio via Getty Images)

-- "UVMMC maintains a staffing policy that facially violates the Church Amendments 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. The policy also violates UVMMC’s agreement, as a condition of receiving HHS funds, to comply with federal law, including the Church Amendments and HHS’s grants regulations."

-- "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."

The OCR gave the Medical Center 30 days to communicate that it would comply with the civil rights office and changes its practices to conform with the law, and "take immediate steps to remedy the effect of its past discriminatory conduct."

If the Medical Center does not comply, the OCR said it would forward the Notice of Violation to the HHS's Health Resources and Service Administration, which provides grant funds to the Center. 

"Since October 1998, UVMMC has received -- and continues to receive -- grants from HRSA," stated the OCR.  "For the most recently completed three-year project period, which ended April 30, 2018, UVMMC reported that it cumulatively expended $1.6 million of federal financial assistance."

In a statement given to The Hill, the Medical Center spokeswoman Annie Mackin said, “When the UVM Medical Center first learned of the allegations that are the subject of OCR’s letter, we promptly and thoroughly investigated them and determined that they were not supported by the facts."

“We do not discriminate against any employees for exercising their rights to opt out of procedures to which they object,” said Mackin. 

Francis Manion, a lawyer with the American Center for Law & Justice, which is representing the nurse, said, “She suffered immediate emotional distress, attempted to suppress the event psychologically, and has been haunted by nightmares ever since. In addition, her employer has created a hostile environment targeting [redacted] and other employees who conscientiously object to participating in abortion procedures.”  

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