Justice Department Defends Health Care Workers from Being Forced to

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division today filed a civil lawsuit in Vermont federal court against the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) for violating the federal anti-discrimination statute known as the “Church Amendments.” That statute prohibits health care entities like UVMMC from discriminating against health care workers who follow their conscience and 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. This kind of indecent coercion violates everything this country stands for,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division. “Federal law protects health care providers from having to choose between their job and participation in what they sincerely believe is the taking of an innocent human life. Coercing people to perform abortions violates the law, and the U.S. Department of Justice will not stand for this shocking and outrageous attack against the right of all people in this free country to follow their conscience.” 

The United States’ complaint alleges that UVMMC violated the Church Amendments when it chose intentionally and willfully to discriminate against a nurse who plainly made her objection to participating in abortions based on her religious beliefs or moral convictions known to UVMMC. Despite knowing of her objection, UVMMC deliberately scheduled this nurse to assist with an elective abortion while deceptively misleading her to believe the procedure did not involve abortion. Once the deceived nurse entered the procedure room she learned the true nature of the procedure. After she reiterated her objection, UVMMC refused to find a non-objecting nurse to take over, effectively forcing the nurse to continue assisting in the abortion (or abandon the patient) despite her well-known religious objection. This example makes up just part of UVMMC’s ongoing pattern, practice, and policy of discriminating against health care providers who believe that the performance, or the assistance in the performance, of abortions is contrary to their religious beliefs or moral convictions.

In response to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, Congress nearly unanimously enacted the Church Amendments, named for Senator Frank Church of Idaho. The Church Amendments prohibit grantees of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from discriminating against health care personnel who “refuse[ ] to perform or assist in the performance of [an] abortion on the grounds that his performance or assistance in the performance of the procedure or abortion would be contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions.” 42 U.S.C. § 300a-7(c)(1). HHS has provided such grant funding to UVMMC since 1998, including over 1.6 million dollars in FY2018-FY2020. 

The case originated from an investigation by HHS. HHS’s investigation found UVMMC in violation of the Church Amendments, and referred the violation to the U.S. Department of Justice for enforcement after UVMMC refused to voluntarily correct its illegal actions.

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