The federal government says the University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington, Vt., violated federal law by forcing a nurse to participate in an abortion despite her objections. The hospital issued a statement saying that the allegation is "not supported by the facts," as Vermont Public Radio reported.
At the center of the dispute is a nurse, whose name is not public. According to a complaint her lawyers filed last May with the Office for Civil Rights, the nurse is Catholic and had informed her employer she could not participate in abortions because of her religious beliefs. Federal law protects health workers from discrimination based on religious or moral beliefs.
In 2017, the complaint alleges, the nurse was misled by her employer to believe she was assisting in a procedure scheduled after a miscarriage. "After [she] confirmed that she was, in fact, being assigned to an abortion, [her employer] refused her request that other equally qualified and available personnel take her place," the complaint reads. She then participated in the procedure and "has been haunted by nightmares ever since," according to the complaint.
On Wednesday, the Office for Civil Rights announced a notice of violation against the hospital — its first such action since Director Roger Severino launched the Division of Conscience and Religious Freedom in 2018.
The Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services receives and investigates complaints from health organizations and workers over issues of privacy violations, civil rights discrimination and discrimination based on moral or religious beliefs. As NPR has reported, Severino has made clear that protecting religious freedom is his priority, though most of the complaints his office handles have to do with patient privacy or civil rights.
Severino told reporters Wednesday this nurse's story was the "quintessential violation" of conscience.
"This should never happen in America," Severino said. "There is room for disagreement on these issues without having to coerce people to choose between a career dedicated to supporting life versus instances and situations where they were being forced to take life."
The notice of violation says the hospital's policies violated federal law "by discriminating against health care personnel who have religious or moral objections to abortion." It gives the medical center 30 days to agree to work with the agency "to change its policies so it no longer requires health care personnel to participate in abortion against their religious or moral objections, and to take immediate steps to remedy the effect of its past discriminatory conduct." If not, its federal funding could be at risk.
University of Vermont Medical Center disputes the events described by the nurse and that its policies violate federal law. It also disputes the government's allegation that it has been uncooperative in the course of the investigation.
"I will tell you that we carefully investigated this complaint and we're very, very comfortable that the allegations are not supported by the facts," says Dr. Stephen Leffler, interim president of the University of Vermont Medical Center.
Leffler seemed baffled by Severino's characterization of the medical center as not complying with the agency's investigation.
"From the outset — and as recently as this month — we offered to discuss our policies and practices with them," Leffler says. "We asked to receive their advice on how those policies and practices could be improved consistent with our obligation to our patients. Unfortunately, OCR instead chose to proceed with this announcement today, as opposed to meeting with us to work to improve the policy together."
Neither the medical center nor the government offered any details about the patient who had that procedure in 2017. Severino told reporters it was a dilation and curettage procedure but would not say whether there were any other medical issues at play or how far along the pregnancy was. He noted the law protecting health workers who don't want to participate in abortions does not make any distinctions about gestational age.
Leffler, of the medical center, says he is concerned that its federal funding could be at risk if it doesn't change its staffing policy regarding abortions.
"All the funding we receive is important," he says. "But we do believe that our policy is correct and just. We do believe our policy protects the rights of the patients who seek our services and protects the rights of our staff. And so we do stand by our policy."
Leffler says the hospital's policy is that no health care worker would be forced to participate in a procedure that's against his or her beliefs except in cases of life or death.
"I don't know of any cases where we've compelled someone to do something against their will," he adds.
Emily Corwin of Vermont Public Radio contributed reporting to this story.