The University of Vermont Medical Center made headlines yesterday when reports emerged that it forced a nurse to participate in an abortion over her moral objections. A Christian medical organization says such incidents aren't just happening in The Green Mountain State.
"This is a huge problem in the United States," says David Stevens, MD, MA of Christian Medical & Dental Associations. "In fact, the issue that's most concerning [to our] members is the issue of being forced to violate your conscience – and that's what blatantly happened in this case." The nurse was required to participate in the abortion in May 2018.
Stevens finds it "interesting" that the policy at the University of Vermont Medical Center changed when it got a new chair who had been a high-level leader in Planned Parenthood.
"[That's when] they began doing abortions there in the hospital – and not only doing them but forcing health care professionals to participate," Stevens continues. "This blatantly violates the Church Amendment and Weldon Amendment and other amendments, but people have been able to get away with this for years … because there's no teeth to the law."
"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."
Denise Burke, senior counsel
Alliance Defending Freedom
Stevens compares it to having speed limits but no police.
"That's the reason that this has become so common," he continues. "We've done a survey of Christian health care professionals and two out of five said they've been pressured to violate their conscience; and one out of four say that they've lost a promotion, a job, or an educational opportunity because of their conscience rights."
Stevens adds this has an impact on individual patients because nine out of ten of the CMDA members and others in health care professional organizations say they will quit medicine before they violate their conscience.
"If we ever needed health care professionals that shared the views of Christian patients, we need them now," he adds.
The Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Wednesday that the University of Vermont Medical Center could lose some federal funding if the two parties cannot agree within 30 days on the hospital's policies on employee participation in abortions.
The Burlington hospital says in a statement that its policies strike the balance between supporting employees' religious, ethical and cultural beliefs, and ensuring "patients are not denied access to safe and legal abortion."
"In many institutions, you are expected to leave your rights at the door, but that violates the First Amendment and one of the higher priorities in the Bill of Rights, and that was freedom of religion," says Dr. Stevens. "Freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom to worship – it means freedom to practice your religious beliefs; and that's throughout your life and your workplace and every arena of your life, and that's what our founding fathers expected."
According to Stevens, CMDA – when contacted by health care professionals who have had their conscience violated – puts them in touch with legal entities that share a Christian belief or refers them to the Office of Civil Rights at HHS.
"We've been advocating for years to put teeth into these laws," he continues, "and the new conscience regulations which came out in May did that. Unfortunately, 19 states have sued to stop that regulation from going into effect and have been joined by ACLU and Planned Parenthood. The Christian Medical & Dental Associations is actually an intervener in that case alongside HHS to defend this regulation."
HHS office: Never should have happened …
The director of the Office for Civil Rights at Health and Human Services says this case of a nurse being forced to assist in an abortion over her religious objections "never should have happened in this day and age in America."
Speaking on the "Washington Watch" radio program, Roger Severino at the Office for Civil Rights said the agency issued a notice of violation letter indicating the medical center broke the law by forcing the nurse to participate.
"This was a nurse who was dedicated to help saving lives, who was in fact coerced into participating in the taking of life through an abortion," said Severino. "She had registered her objections to participating in abortions, yet the University of Vermont Medical Center decided in 2017 to start doing elective abortions without informing staff – and this nurse was actually scheduled for a procedure that she thought was related to a miscarriage but was in fact told [by the doctor] when she arrived, 'Please don't hate me.' Because the doctor knew that this was going to be an abortion and that this nurse was going to be put in a horrendous position where she would face a crisis of conscience."
Severino went on to explain that the nurse tried to raise her objections once again, and even though Severino said the nurse could have been replaced by a willing participant, the hospital refused.
"And this was on pain of potentially losing her job or being reported to licensing bodies, which would threaten her ability to practice medicine at all. And put in that horrendous situation, she gave in and it has traumatized her. This is a real, moral injury."
Severino added that regardless what one thinks about Roe v. Wade or the legality of abortion, the American public has spoken in a unified voice that people cannot be coerced to participate in abortions, pay for abortions, refer for abortions, or cover abortions against their will.
"That is precisely what happened here," Severino concluded. "And that is a quintessential violation not only of common justice but of federal law that my office … is charged with enforcing.
Editor's note: Comments from Roger Severino were added after story was originally posted.