In the latest move by the Trump administration to protect “religious freedom” — a core value for antiabortion activists and other social conservatives key to the president’s political base — a notice sent Wednesday accused the University of Vermont Medical Center of violating civil rights law by requiring a nurse to assist with an abortion against her wishes.
The action against UVM medical center is the third enforcement action taken in the 1 1/2 years since the Department of Health and Human Services created a conscience and religious freedom division within its civil rights office. It is the first that deals specifically with a health-care worker’s objection to participating in an abortion.
In a conference call with reporters, Roger Severino, the civil rights office’s director, said that his office conducted an investigation “for many months” based on a May 2018 complaint that a nurse at the Burlington-based medical center had been surprised to discover she was being asked to assist with a patient’s abortion. He said she had previously made clear she was not comfortable being involved with the procedure.
The complaint was lodged several months after the medical center expanded its services in 2017 to include elective abortion.
Severino said that the nurse, whose name is redacted from HHS documents released Wednesday, had helped in the past with dilation and curettage, in which tissue is scraped from the uterus for a variety of reasons, and believed that she was going to help with another one. But when she walked into the room, Severino said, a doctor told her, “Please don’t hate me” because the procedure was an elective abortion. The nurse feared losing her job and felt coerced to participate, according to Severino’s account.
A spokeswoman for the medical center said the institution has “robust formal protections that strike the appropriate and legal balance between supporting our employees’ religious ethical and cultural beliefs, and making sure our patients are not denied access to safe and legal abortion.”
The spokeswoman, Annie Mackin, said the medical center did not believe that HHS had legal authority to conduct its investigation. But “we had been working with them,” she said. In addition, she said, the center did not know the inquiry was complete until it was notified shortly before Severino’s call with reporters. “We weren’t expecting anything like this,” she added.
The notice does not carry a penalty but could eventually lead to the withdrawal of federal funds, including about $1.6 million in money over the past three years from HHS’s Health Resources Services Administration, Severino said. For now, the notice gives the medical center 30 days to begin bringing its personnel rules into compliance with federal requirements about employees’ participation in procedures to which they have conscience or religious objections.
Severino emphasized that Wednesday’s action did not rely on a new HHS conscience rule, which goes into effect in November and is being challenged in court. He said it was being taken under a 1970s federal law, known as the Church amendments, which includes a requirement that employees of health-care facilities that accept federal money not be compelled to participate in abortions if the procedure conflicts with their beliefs.
Asked whether the case focused on a Vermont hospital because lawmakers there are trying to pass a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the right to abortion, Severino said that played no role. “If there was ever a violation of the Church amendments that needed to be enforced, it was this one,” he said.
The two previous enforcement actions by the conscience and religious freedom division involved instances in California and Hawaii in which the states were trying to compel crisis pregnancy centers to provide women with information on how to access free and low-cost abortion services.