The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) sent a notice of violation to the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) after its investigation found the hospital violated federal law by “forcing a nurse to assist in an elective abortion procedure over the nurse’s conscience-based objection,” despite the nurse’s objection to perform the job, the HHS Office for Civil Right announced the notice on Wednesday, Aug. 28. 

OCR said that the hospital violated the Church Amendments, passed by Congress in the 1970s.

OCR also found that the hospital has discriminatory policies that assign or require employees to assist in abortion procedures even after they have recorded their religious or moral objections to assisting in the performance of said abortions. 

The agency informed the hospital that it has 30 days to change its policies and that it won’t make staff go against their religious beliefs,. and take immediate steps to remedy the effect of its past discriminatory conduct or it could lose the funding. 

The hospital has received $1.6 million over the past three years as part of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program.

The hospital denied the allegations, saying that a complaint was from a former employee, “when the UVM Medical Center first learned of the allegations that are the subject of OCR’s letter, we promptly and thoroughly investigated them and determined that they were not supported by the facts,” the hospital said in a statement. 

“The University of Vermont Medical Center has robust, formal protections that safeguard both our employees’ religious, ethical, and cultural beliefs, and our patients’ rights to access safe and legal abortion. We do not discriminate against any employees for exercising their rights to opt out of procedures to which they object,” the statement added. 

According to OCR, the nurse had expressed an objection for many years and was included in a list of objectors, but the hospital 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 the hospital would fire or report the nurse to licensing authorities.

Roger Severino, director of OCR said, “Forcing medical staff to assist in the taking of human life inflicts a moral injury on them that is not only unnecessary and wrong, it violates long-standing federal law. Our investigation has uncovered serious discrimination by UVMMC against nurses and staff who cannot, in good conscience, assist in elective abortions.”  

Severino concluded, “We stand ready to assist UVMMC in changing its policies and procedures to respect conscience rights and remedy the effects of its discrimination.” 

From the statement, the hospital will “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.”

According to Washington Examiner, the Trump administration last year added the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division to the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate complaints like the one made public on Wednesday. The latest is the third such enforcement the Trump administration has taken. The other two cases happened in California and Hawaii after health care workers declined to refer patients for an abortion.

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