The Trump administration accused the University of Vermont Medical Center on Wednesday of violating federal law by forcing a nurse to participate in an elective abortion.
The Health and Human Services Department issued a notice of violation after it investigated the nurse’s complaint from May 2018 and found evidence to support her claim. It also said the center has 30 days to comply with federal policies or risk losing federal funds.
The medical center pledged to work with HHS but said it investigated the claims behind the complaint and found they were “not supported by the facts.” It said it couldn’t go into much detail due to privacy laws.
Federal officials offered a different version. They said the Vermont center knew about the nurse’s objections, yet when she reported to a medical room one day, a doctor said, “You’re going to hate me,” because they were about to perform an abortion.
“This put the nurse in a tremendous moral quandary,” said Roger Severino, who leads the HHS’s Office for Civil Rights. “She asked for relief … but she was told ‘no.’ “
Mr. Severino said the nurse relented, due to career pressures, and has been “traumatized” ever since.
HHS’s action won praise from pro-life and religious liberty advocates who form a core plank of Mr. Trump’s political support and say previous administration’s weren’t proactive in enforcing conscience-protection laws.
Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a pro-life group, said “abortion is not health care and we are thankful to President Trump and HHS Secretary [Alex M. Azar II] for leading the charge to protect conscience rights.”
“Medical professionals should never be forced to sacrifice their commitment to protecting life to serve those in need,” said Denise Burke, senior counsel at the Alliance Defending Freedom. “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.”
Mr. Severino said HHS is receiving far more complaints based on conscience — hundreds per year — compared to a trickle during the prior administration, in part because it has highlighted enforcement.
He said the Vermont center, in particular, ran afoul of so-called “church amendments” that protect medical workers who refuse to participate in abortions or sterilizations on religious or moral grounds.
According to HHS, the policy created situations in which the center would call on employees to participate in objectionable procedures if they’re short-staffed.
Mr. Severino said his office found the nurse and supporting witnesses credible, while the medical center did not take advantage of an opportunity to present its own witnesses.
“So, here we are,” he said.
In a statement, the center said it’s been cooperating for months and was disappointed with HHS’s decision to crack down.
“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,” it said. “Unfortunately, OCR instead chose to proceed with the announcement it issued today.”
Mr. Severino said he wants the medical center to comply with federal rules voluntarily. If it refuses, it will be referred to the Health Resources and Services Administration, which may revoke funding.
The medical center spent $1.6 million in federal grants from HRSA during the most recently competed three-year funding period, according to HHS.
The center said it will work “cooperatively” with HHS “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.”
Wednesday’s violation is the third one of its kind issued by the Trump administration. HHS previously accused the states of Hawaii and California of violating the rights of pregnancy-resource centers that refused to refer women for abortion services.
The violation is not based on a recently issued “conscience-protection” rule that Mr. Trump announced with great fanfare earlier this year.
Though it’s not in effect yet, Democrats say it may lead to medical discrimination against women or gay and transgender patients.