The ACLJ applauds today’s announcement by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) regarding a Complaint we filed on behalf of a Vermont nurse who was forced into participating in an abortion procedure against her deeply held religious beliefs.
In our Complaint, we alleged that our client, an operating room nurse at the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) in Burlington, was coerced into assisting in an abortion in 2017 even though her name was on a list of nurses who, for religious or moral reasons, were conscientiously opposed to such participation and even though other non-objecting nurses were available who could easily have taken her place.
In the more than two decades of work that ACLJ has done to defend the rights of conscience of pro-life health care workers, this is by far the most outrageous case we’ve ever seen. Our client’s most fundamental beliefs about the sanctity of life were simply brushed aside.
Worse, her superiors deliberately misled her into thinking she was assisting in a procedure following a miscarriage. But once trapped inside the OR she discovered that it was, in fact, an elective abortion and that this had been known all along by her superiors who then callously refused to relieve her. To say that she was emotionally traumatized by this event is putting it mildly.
At least four other nurses at UVMMC have confirmed that they too have been subjected to similar violations of their conscience rights. We forwarded them to OCR as part of our Complaint. And after conducting its own thorough investigation of the matter, OCR has substantiated their allegations.
In its announcement, HHS finds that UVMMC has committed violations of the federal Church Amendment – the so-called “conscience clause” – named for the late liberal Idaho Democratic Senator Frank Church. The law was enacted in 1973 as a response to the Supreme Court’s legalization of abortion in Roe v. Wade. In general, it prohibits entities that receive federal funding from discriminating against employees who refuse to perform or assist in the performance of abortions because of their moral or religious beliefs.
But, because the Church Amendment has always lacked a mechanism for enforcement by private citizens, its enforcement has depended on action taken by HHS itself. In the decades since 1973, however, such enforcement has, for all intents and purposes, been nonexistent. With today’s announcement, HHS’s Office of Civil Rights has, at long last, put teeth in a law that has lain largely dormant since its enactment.
HHS has given UVMMC 30 days to come up with a policy that will ensure that the things that happened to our client, and others like her, will not happen again. If they fail to cooperate, they lose their federal funding.
This action by HHS is an enormous step forward toward the full protection of conscience rights of all those in the health care field who recognize the sanctity of all human life. The repercussions of today’s action will be felt in every hospital and health care system in the country.
No longer should pro-life health care professionals have to fear that their values – the values of protecting, not, destroying, life – make them somehow unfit or unsuitable for the healing profession. No nurses, doctors, or other health workers should ever be deliberately trapped in a room and forced to participate in something that their employer knows those workers consider abhorrent at the core of their being.
For over two decades the American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) has been at the forefront of advancing and defending the right of free speech and conscientious objection when it comes to the sanctity of human life. In addition to our work with legislators and public policy makers in Washington and around the country, we have also represented dozens of individuals – women and men on the front lines of the pro-life cause – who have found themselves discriminated against because of their pro-life stands. Doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and other health care workers – we’ve gone to court for them before judges and juries from Maine to Hawaii and most points in between.
The ACLJ very much welcomes HHS’s vigorous enforcement of federal conscience rights in this case. No health care worker should be forced to abandon their career because they refuse to abandon their pro-life convictions. If you are a healthcare worker and have experienced a similar situation, please contact us at ACLJ.org/HELP.
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