Hospital Under Fire for Forcing Staff Support in Abortion

WASHINGTON (CN) — Federal officials served a violation notice Wednesday to a Vermont hospital that it says forced a nurse to participate in an elective abortion despite her moral objections.

“Please don’t hate me,” a doctor at the University of Vermont Medical Center allegedly said to the nurse as she entered the operating room to assist in what she had been told was a procedure relating to a miscarriage.

The main entrance to the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, Vt., shown on Wednesday after a federal agency said the hospital, Vermont’s largest, forced a nurse to participate in an abortion over her moral objections. (AP Photo/Lisa Rathke)

Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights for the Department of Health and Human Services, related the details of the case this morning in a press call.

Despite what she had been deliberately misled into thinking by the hospital, according to the notice of violation, the procedure involved an abortion.

“This put the nurse in a tremendous moral quandary,” Severino said, noting that the nurse asked for relief.

“She had already made her objections known,” he continued, “but she even asked at the moment if something could be done to replace her. … But she was told no.” 

A representatives for the University of Vermont Medical Center, which received $1.6 million in federal funding this year, denied that it discriminates. It also said the record does not support today’s violation notice — which it learned about through the press.

“Because this issue involves patient care and personnel matters, we cannot go into as much detail as OCR did today, however, we have engaged with representatives from OCR about the complaint over the past nine months,” the hospital said in a statement. “From the outset and as recently as this month, we have offered to discuss our policies and practices, and to receive OCR’s advice on how those policies and practices may be improved consistent with our obligations to our patients. Unfortunately, OCR instead chose to proceed with the announcement it issued today. We nonetheless remain willing to work cooperatively with OCR to identify any ways in which we can further support our employees’ conscience and religious rights, in a manner that is consistent with high-quality patient care, and the other legal and ethical obligations we have to our patients.”

Severino told reporters meanwhile that the hospital provides some accommodations for the religious and moral convictions of staffers who cannot perform abortions, but that it also allows for organizational discretion when related to staffing assistance. 

HHS will give Vermont Medical Center 30 days to decide if it will work cooperatively to change that policy under a set of 1973 laws called the Church Amendments, named for then-Senator Frank Church of Idaho. If the center refuses to comply, Severino said the complaint will be forwarded to the Health Resources and Services Administration, a move that could lead to the revocation of federal funds.

“They can provide fully compliant accommodation procedures and staffing policies, which is what we had required in previous enforcement actions at OCR, or they can decline federal funds,” Severino said. “What they cannot do is receive the federal funds and create conditions where they will be scheduling people who object to abortions and schedule them to assist and perform abortions.”

Responding to the notice Wednesday, Michelle Truong, program associate at the International Women’s Health Coalition, emphasized that it’s not so easy to pass off patients to other, more willing providers.

“The reality is when patients are denied care they face increased—and sometimes life-threatening—health risks, mental anguish, and economic stress,” Truong said in a statement.

“By expanding protections for providers that refuse to provide abortion or other reproductive health services, the Trump administration has weaponized religious freedom as a tool of discrimination against women and LGBTQI people.”

Severino said today’s violation notice is not tied to new anti-discrimination protections being rolled out by the Trump administration for individuals and entities exercising conscience-based objections in health care.

The conscience rule had initially been set to take effect last month but HHS pushed the effective date to November in light of ongoing litigation.

“In a country with many contentious issues, we do not want a society where, on the issue of life and death, people are forced to violate their deepest held beliefs about it, especially on the issue of abortion and medical professionals, who enter the medical profession to help save lives, not take lives,” Severino said. 

Katherine Ragsdale, interim president and CEO of National Abortion Federation, said in a statement Wednesday that individuals who are uncomfortable with performing their work compassionately should find alternative employment. 

“We respect, within reasonable limits, individuals’ rights to act in accordance with their consciences,” Ragsdale said in a statement. “Those health care workers whose consciences do not allow them to provide compassionate care or to perform the duties their patients require and their employers assign should feel free, and encouraged, to find other work.”

Truong echoed this sentiment.

“Providers have an obligation to provide legal health services when requested,” she said.

“So-called ‘conscientious objection’ has no place in health care and is a violation of patients’ rights,” Truong added. “When medical providers refuse to provide health care services, patients and health systems face severe consequences.

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