The Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has put the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) on notice after employees reported being forced to help with abortions against their moral objections.
A Catholic nurse at UVMMC was allegedly forced to assist with an elective abortion, despite previously telling her employer that she objects to participating in abortions for reasons of conscience. According to HHS’s investigation, the nurse was told she would be treating a patient who had experienced a miscarriage. When she walked into the procedure room, the doctor allegedly said to her, “Don’t hate me.” The nurse asked for a replacement, but was allegedly told no. The abortion was not an emergency procedure, but an elective one. Fearing losing her job, the nurse relented.
“This should never happen in America. There is room for disagreement on these issues without having to coerce people to choose between a career dedicated to supporting life versus instances or circumstances where they are being forced to take a life,” Roger Severino, head of HHS’s Office of Civil Rights, told reporters on Wednesday.
The hospital began performing elective abortions in 2017, but did not inform all employees, “many of which had already informed” the hospital of their objections to assisting in abortions, Severino said.
The OCR said they found more than sufficient evidence of the allegations throughout their months-long investigation, but that UVMMC was not fully cooperative. “There was a coerced abortion, that we are convinced of,” Severino said.
UVMMC recently created a new policy that allows punishing staffers who refuse to participate in abortions when the hospital is short-staffed. This policy directly violates well-established laws, commonly known as the “Church Amendments,” which prohibit hospitals funded by the Public Health Service Act from discriminating against doctors and nurses who refuse to participate in abortions. Earlier this year, OCR established a new rule with additional guidelines to clarify and strengthen the protections for conscience objections.
Severino said the hospital has been given 30 days to change their staffing polices to either become fully compliant, or their federal grants will be in jeopardy. UVMMC recently reported spending a cumulative $1.6 million of federal funds for a project over three years.
The hospital has contested both the investigation and the allegations. A spokesperson for UVMMC said in a statement that its policies strike a balance between supporting employees’ religious, ethical, and cultural beliefs, and ensuring “patients are not denied access to safe and legal abortion.”
Severino said the overall goal of this notice is to bring UVMMC into compliance with federal law: “We are committed to making sure the laws are enforced, that victims of this sort of discrimination get justice and entities that get federal funds comply with the law.”