HHS’s Office of Civil Rights files civil suit against Vermont hospital for forcing nurse to participate in an abortion

By Dave Andrusko

Back on August 29, 2019, National Right to Life News Today wrote that the Health and Human Services Department had filed a notice of violation against the University of Vermont Medical Center for violating a federal anti-discrimination statute which prohibits health care entities from discriminating against health care workers who follow their conscience and refuse to perform or assist with abortions. 

Yesterday the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division filed a civil lawsuit in Vermont federal court against the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) for violating the “Church Amendments.”

In a statement, the Justice Department explained that the lawsuit

alleges that UVMMC violated the Church Amendments when it chose intentionally and willfully to discriminate against a nurse who plainly made her objection to participating in abortions based on her religious beliefs or moral convictions known to UVMMC. Despite knowing of her objection, UVMMC deliberately scheduled this nurse to assist with an elective abortion while deceptively misleading her to believe the procedure did not involve abortion. Once the deceived nurse entered the procedure room she learned the true nature of the procedure. After she reiterated her objection, UVMMC refused to find a non-objecting nurse to take over, effectively forcing the nurse to continue assisting in the abortion (or abandon the patient) despite her well-known religious objection. 

Mary Beerworth, Executive Director of Vermont Right to Life, told NRL News Today, “It is regrettable that the decision was made a few years ago by the UVM MC Board of Trustees to permit the state’s largest hospital to offer elective abortions. President and COO Steve Leffler should expect to have ongoing difficulty keeping abortion services separate when the same operating room is used for life saving surgeries.” 

“Protecting the conscience of those members of the staff who refuse to be involved in any way with ending the life of an unborn baby should be paramount. Those who do not understand their objections should witness how an abortion at 20+ weeks gestation is performed,” Beerworth added. “It is important that the process of hiring staff at the UVMMC does not discriminate against medical personnel who object to abortion and other procedures that may violate their oath and their conscience.”

The hospital, of course, said all was good now, and that the “latest threats are not just baseless from a legal standpoint, they’re an attack on reproductive care,” as Stephen Leffler, president of UVMMC, told the UPI [www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2020/12/17/Trump-admin-sues-Vermont-hospital-over-abortion/5171608179669]. 

But that’s not what the lawsuit alleges [https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1345321/download].

The immediate example—“Nurse 1”—“makes up just part of UVMMC’s ongoing pattern, practice, and policy of discriminating against health care providers who believe that the performance, or the assistance in the performance, of abortions is contrary to their religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

The complaint alleges

Defendant UVMMC refuses to comply with the Church Amendments despite HHS’s notice of non-compliance and efforts to bring Defendant into voluntary compliance. 

The United States accordingly seeks a declaratory judgment that Defendant has violated the Church Amendments, and an order from this Court directing Defendant fully to comply with the Church Amendments and uphold the contractual assurances it made to HHS promising to comply with the Church Amendments.