The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights is giving the University of Vermont Medical Center 30 days to change its policies after it broke the law by forcing a Catholic nurse to assist in an abortion.
On May 9, 2018, a nurse at UVMMC filed a conscience and religious discrimination complaint with OCR against UVMMC, a medical center in Burlington, Vermont that receives HHS funds, contending that the nurse was forced to assist an abortion in violation of the nurse’s conscience rights. As part of its investigation, OCR contacted UVMMC repeatedly in a good faith effort to seek cooperation from UVMMC, 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. Nevertheless, OCR interviewed multiple witnesses and gathered evidence concerning the allegations.
As a result of its investigation, OCR has specifically determined that:
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.” The nurse again objected, and other staff were present who could have taken the nurse’s place, but the 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. Health care personnel who are coerced in that way suffer moral injury, are subjected to a crisis of conscience, and frequently experience significant emotional distress, even if they succeed in declining to assist in the procedure after the assignment is made.
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.
Consequently, 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.
Alliance Defending Freedom Senior Counsel Denise Burke stated, “Medical professionals should never be forced to sacrifice their commitment to protecting life to serve those in need. That’s why protecting the freedom to live and work consistent with one’s conscience is critical: It is at the heart of what motivates many who enter the medical field, a profession full of individuals who dedicate their lives to healing and doing no harm. Unfortunately, nurses, doctors, and other health care providers—including ADF clients like Sandra Rojas, Fe Esperanza Racpan Vinoya and Cathy DeCarlo—have faced government discrimination and have even lost their jobs because of their commitment to saving life. We commend the Trump administration and HHS’s Office for Civil Rights for investigating and taking corrective action against the University of Vermont Medical Center for its flawed policies and for working to ensure the civil rights and conscience rights of all Americans are protected.”