HHS Launches Another Attack on Abortion Providers Under Guise of ‘Conscience Rights’

A spokesperson for the University of Vermont Medical Center said the Trump administration's allegations are "not supported by the facts."

[Photo: HHS Office of Civil Rights Director Roger Severino speaks during an event.]
Severino, an advocate for anti-choice policies, said people enter the medical profession to “help save lives, not take lives.” Severino on the Wednesday call referred to abortion as the “taking of a human life.” Aaron P. Bernstein / Getty Images

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Civil Rights, headed by an anti-choice activist, claims the University of Vermont Medical Center “coerced” a nurse into providing abortion care—a charge the medical center denies.

The Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which under the Trump administration has focused on promoting and defending health-care discrimination under the guise of protecting so-called religious freedom, on Wednesday said the university’s medical center “unlawfully” forced “a nurse to assist in an elective abortion procedure over the nurse’s conscience-based objections.” The phrase “elective abortion” is not a medical term and is often used to stigmatize abortion.

In an announcement Wednesday, HHS said this is a trend at the medical center, which it claims has “intentionally, unnecessarily and knowingly” scheduled nurses to assist with abortions “against their religious or moral objections” since it began offering those services in 2017.

The nurse, who filed a complaint with HHS in 2018, is represented by the American Center for Law and Justice. The organization is headed by Jay Sekulow, a personal lawyer for President Trump who has close ties to some of the most radical elements of the anti-choice movement.

Roger Severino, head of the HHS civil rights division, said the University of Vermont Medical Center had violated the Church Amendments—a set of provisions enacted in the 1970s to “protect the conscience rights of individuals and entities that object to performing or assisting in the performance of abortion or sterilization procedures if doing so would be contrary to the provider’s religious beliefs or moral convictions,” according to HHS.

Severino said the university’s religious freedom policies were insufficient, and the medical center has 30 days to come into compliance with federal law or it could eventually lose its federal funding. The medical center receives funding through the Health Resources and Services Administration, including $1.6 million over a three-year period ending in April 2018, according to HHS.

Severino said the nurse feared she would lose her job or be “reported to the authorities” if she refused to assist with the abortion, though he didn’t specify whether anyone at the medical facility had threatened the nurse with repercussions. Severino, an advocate for anti-choice policies, said people enter the medical profession to “help save lives, not take lives.” Severino referred to abortion as the “taking of a human life” on the Wednesday call.

Annie Mackin, a spokesperson for the University of Vermont Medical Center, told Rewire.News that while she “can’t speak to what the employee felt …. any such fears would not be in line with the fact that our employees are protected from discrimination based on any decision they make to opt out of procedures or treatments.”

The center “has robust, formal protections that safeguard both our employees’ religious, ethical and cultural beliefs, and our patients’ rights to access safe and legal abortion,” Mackin said in a statement.

“When the UVM Medical Center first learned of the allegations that are the subject of OCR’s letter, we promptly and thoroughly investigated them and determined that they were not supported by the facts,” Mackin said, adding that the university’s medical center sought advice from HHS about how to comply with federal law as recently as this month.

“OCR instead chose to proceed with the announcement it issued today,” Mack said. “We nonetheless remain willing to work cooperatively with OCR to identify any ways in which we can further support our employees’ conscience and religious rights, in a manner that is consistent with high-quality patient care, and the other legal and ethical obligations we have to our patients.”

Since Trump entered the White House, OCR officials have transformed the office into a powerful political entity centered on so-called religious freedom. In 2018 Severino launched a health-care discrimination wing of OCR, known as the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division, to defend health-care providers who oppose abortion and do not want to treat LGBTQ people. This case marks the third enforcement action the division has taken to protect “conscience rights,” and it’s first action in defense of an individual health-care worker who objects to participating in abortion care.

Vermont does not impose any restrictions on abortion services, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Earlier this year, state lawmakers codified the right to an abortion and prohibited public entities from interfering with the right to abortion care. As of 2014, there were nine abortion-providing facilities in Vermont.