Justice Department sues UVM Medical Center over abortion complaint

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BURLINGTON, Vt. – The U.S. Department of Justice has intervened in a religious discrimination complaint that accuses UVM Medical Center of forcing a nurse to assist in an abortion procedure despite moral objections.

The DOJ filed a suit Wednesday on behalf of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Office for Civil Rights, nearly a year and a half after the complaint appeared to be settled.

The alleged incident occurred in May 2017. The nurse claims she was “deliberately led to believe” she had been assigned to assist with a different procedure. The hospital has denied the allegations.

A complaint was filed the following year. In August 2019, HHS gave UVM Medical Center 30 days to change its policies to no longer require healthcare personnel to participate in abortions if they have moral or religious objections. HHS agreed to not recommend any further enforcement stemming from the complaint after UVM Medical Center revised its policy.

But the DOJ disagrees. At a pro-life celebration at the White House on Wednesday, U.S. Principal Deputy Associate Attorney Clair McCusker Murray brought up the case, saying the hospital’s updated policy still doesn’t meet the necessary standards.

“The University of Vermont Medical Center had forced a Catholic nurse to participate in an elective abortion even though the doctor knew the nurse had placed her name on the list of conscientious objectors,” Murray said. “Our suit alleges that the hospital has adopted discriminatory policies that authorize it to schedule conscientious objectors to assist in abortions.”

UVM Medical Center President Dr. Stephen Leffler said the DOJ’s renewed interest more than a year later came as a surprise. He said the hospital has received no other complaints and had not heard from federal officials that its updated policy didn’t meet standards until earlier this week.

“On Monday we got a registered letter from them warning us that if we didn’t sign an agreement that was different from what we agreed to, they were going to take action against us by the end of the day Monday,” Leffler said.

In a statement, Vermont Attorney General TJ Donovan said the DOJ lawsuit “doesn’t make a lot of sense.” He said the hospital’s conflict of care policy is “a reasonable balance between honoring the religious objections of its employees and it’s obligation to provide essential healthcare to patients.”

“You have 35 days left in this administration,” Donovan said. “There’s going to be a new Attorney General. There’s going to be a new President with different priorities. I think we can say with certainty that no legal case or lawsuit gets resolved in 35 days.”

Planned Parenthood Vermont called the lawsuit “nothing more than a political game by a lame duck administration.” President and CEO Meaghan Gallagher said it was attempt to infringe on the right to an abortion.

“Government interference should never determine patient care,” Gallagher said. “Barriers to safe, legal abortion infringe on people’s rights and dignity and they go against every commitment we as healthcare providers make to protect access to care.”

The Office for Civil Rights released the following statement on the DOJ lawsuit:

“Although UVMMC could have readily, and without interruption to patient services, accommodated the religious or moral objections to elective abortion of its health care personnel, UVMMC has nevertheless illegally assigned numerous objecting personnel to such procedures.  In violation of the plain language of the Church Amendments, UVMMC’s “conflict of care policy” reserves the right to disregard nurses’ expressed religious or moral objections to participating in abortion procedures.”

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