The U.S. Justice Department filed a civil lawsuit Wednesday against the University of Vermont Medical Center alleging it forces staff members who object to abortion on religious grounds to participate in abortion procedures.
The Vermont lawsuit alleges the Burlington hospital violated the Church Amendment, which prevents hospitals from discriminating against health care workers who refuse to perform or assist with abortions.
“No institution or person should force any health care provider to perform an abortion if doing so would violate the provider’s religious beliefs or moral convictions," Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband, of the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit. “This kind of indecent coercion violates everything this country stands for.”
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In a statement issued before the lawsuit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Burlington, the hospital said it had been negotiating with the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights and that it had strengthened “its already-compliant provider opt-out policies and practices.”
“OCR’s latest threats are not just baseless from a legal standpoint, they’re an attack on reproductive care and we will do everything we can to protect our patients’ access to the services they need,” said hospital president Dr. Stephen Leffler.
“As the primary tertiary care center for our region, we have an obligation to provide access to safe and legal reproductive health care to our patients who rely on us,” he said.
Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan, a Democrat, said in a statement supporting the hospital the department of Health and Human Service's action “represents a last-ditch effort by the Trump Administration to restrict a woman’s access to abortion — a theme that has permeated throughout Donald Trump’s presidency.”
In August 2019 the HHS Office for Civil Rights filed a notice of violation against the hospital alleging it had forced a nurse to participate in an abortion against her will.
At the time the notice was filed a federal official told reporters the nurse believed she would be participating in a procedure after a patient suffered a miscarriage. After learning the procedure was an abortion she was told by the doctor “Please don’t hate me.”
The nurse asked to be relieved, but was told no. The lawsuit said the incident caused the nurse, who was referred to in court documents as Nurse 1, “deep emotional trauma.”
A year later the nurse, who has since left the hospital, filed a complaint with the HHS Office for Civil Rights.
This story was first published on December 16, 2020. It was updated on December 17, 2020, to correct the name of the organization initially involved in the case to the Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights, instead of the Civil Rights Division.