Last-minute abortion lawsuit
The Trump administration sues a Vermont hospital on behalf of a pro-life nurse
A Vermont hospital forced a nurse to participate in an abortion despite her conscientious objections, according to a lawsuit the Department of Justice filed on Wednesday. The department’s Civil Rights Division accuses the University of Vermont Medical Center of violating the federal Church Amendments, which forbid federally funded healthcare institutions from discriminating against employees who object to abortion. The Trump administration has worked to protect the unborn and the conscience rights of religious objectors for four years—but this one may not get far.
The nurse, who no longer works for the medical center, filed a complaint with the HHS Office for Civil Rights in May 2018. She alleged that, the year before, her employer tricked her into helping with an abortion by leading her to believe it was a post-miscarriage treatment. When she entered the procedure room and discovered the patient had come for an elective abortion, she asked that another nurse take her place. Her employer refused, and she participated out of fear that the hospital would charge her with patient abandonment if she did not. The charge could mean the loss of her job and nursing license.
When the nurse joined the hospital in 2008, it prohibited elective abortions and only performed the procedure when deemed “medically necessary.” That year, it began a list of employees who conscientiously objected to assisting with abortions. The nurse added her name to the list because of her Catholic faith. But, by 2017, the hospital had scrapped its prohibition on elective abortions. It scheduled nurses to help with the procedure even if they were on the objector list.
Katie Glenn, government affairs counsel at Americans United for Life, said the lawsuit likely comes as a last resort in HHS’s efforts to encourage the hospital to comply. Typically, HHS works with offending organizations to reimplement policies that will protect employees with conscience objections. The Vermont hospital did not follow HHS’s recommendations.
But the future of the lawsuit is uncertain in light of the incoming Democratic president. “What that looks like is certainly up in the air because … this is just not necessarily a priority for the Biden administration,” Glenn said. The nurse’s legal team or members of Congress could intervene in the case, she said, but HHS is likely to drop it under new leadership. She cited Biden’s HHS secretary pick, Xavier Becerra: “If he’s directing this and determining what the department priorities are, it’s not looking good.”
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