A nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center says she was forced to perform an elective abortion even though her employer was aware of her objections. The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit last December on behalf of the nurse, accusing UVMC of violating a law that prohibits HHS grantees from discriminating against employees with conscientious objections to abortion.
However, in a surprise move, the DOJ recently dropped the case. Critics say the decision could endanger providers with moral or religious objections, while proponents say the suit never should’ve been filed in the first place.
Suing to Protect Conscientious Objectors
It’s no secret that abortion remains a hot-button issue across America. Under former president Trump, the federal government went after multiple companies and facilities for performing the procedure. The Department of Health and Human Services severed funding for California’s Medicaid program for forcing insurers to cover abortions.
Last December, the HHS Office of Civil Rights went after UVMC for allegedly scheduling the nurse to assist with an abortion even though her supervisors were aware of her objections ahead of time.
Roger Severino, former head of the OCR, declined to mention the specifics of the situation, including the patient’s age, fetal condition, and gestation.
HHS established the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division within the OCR in 2018 to support providers with religious objections that feel their rights are being violated. Since creating the new division, Severino says HHS started receiving hundreds of complaints regarding potential violations. The office gave the hospital 30 days to comply with the federal government’s Church Amendments, passed in the 1970s, which protect the rights of workers with religious or moral objections.
However, UVMC vigorously denied the allegations.
“We flatly deny that we schedule any employees to participate in procedures they register objections to,” said facility spokeswoman Annie Mackin. “We promptly and thoroughly investigated (the allegations) and determined that they were not supported by the facts.”
Severino defended the charges, saying “We don’t want a society where on the issue of life and death, people are forced to violate their beliefs, especially when abortion and medical professionals are involved. These people are trained to save lives, not take them.”
Reinterpreting Federal Law
President Biden appears to be taking HHS in a new direction. The DOJ recently dropped the lawsuit regarding the Vermont nurse by filing a notice of dismissal.
An HHS spokesperson commented on the decision, “After a detailed evaluation of the underlying legal theory used to issue a referral to the Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services withdrew the original referral and requested DOJ dismiss the suit against the University of Vermont Medical Center, a request which was granted. In line with this, HHS removed the Notice of Violation issued against UVMCC last Friday. HHS continues to evaluate the underlying facts of the matter and notified all the parties about its actions last Friday.”
Conservatives have been speculating over how the DOJ would handle cases involving religious or moral objections under President Biden, and the move shows the department is under new leadership.
Severino blasted the department’s decision to dismiss the case. “Its a dereliction of duty that is an insult to the bipartisan consensus that says you cannot force people to assist in abortions,” he said.
John Daukas, former assistant attorney general for civil rights under President Trump, said the department’s decision breaks with precedent.
“It’s very hard to understand how anybody could support forcing someone to perform an abortion, who thinks that they’re killing an innocent life,” Daukas said. “I think that’s just outrageous, and I can’t believe the Justice Department dropped the lawsuit. Setting the morality aside, the law is clear.”
However, staff from the UVMC celebrated the news now that they are no longer under investigation.
President and chief operating officer, Dr. Steve Leffler, commented, “We were pleased to learn that the United States Department of Justice has voluntarily dismissed the federal lawsuit against the UVM Medical Center regarding our reproductive care opt-out policies and procedures, which we had urged them to do since the moment it was filed.”
“We are committed to meeting the medical needs of our patients, while respecting the religious and moral beliefs of our employees,” Leffler continued. “Our opt-out policies and practices for employees who object to participating in certain medical procedures, including abortion, are strong and in full compliance with federal law, and we have only strengthened them over the past two years. As Vermont’s academic, tertiary care center, we have an obligation to provide access to the full spectrum of timely and safe health care services, including abortions, to our patients who rely on us.”
Despite concern from conservatives, HHS maintained that it plans to abide by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which limits the government’s ability to interfere with a person’s right to exercise their religious beliefs.