Trump administration accuses hospital of forcing nurse to assist in abortion

Trump administration accuses hospital of forcing nurse to assist in abortion
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The Trump administration is threatening to pull federal funding from a Vermont hospital because of allegations that a nurse was forced to participate in what federal officials said was an abortion procedure, despite her religious objections.

The Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights (OCR) on Wednesday announced it told the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMC) that it had violated the law "by forcing a nurse to assist in an elective abortion procedure over the nurse’s conscience-based objections."

The agency said it has given the hospital 30 days to bring its conscience protection and staffing policies into compliance with federal law, or face the loss of federal funding.

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The department said it also found that the hospital “has discriminatory policies” that require employees to assist with abortion procedures even after they have recorded their religious or moral objections.

The hospital could potentially lose millions of dollars in federal grants. According to the agency, the hospital has received $1.6 million over the past three years as part of the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program.

UVMC disputed the allegations, which it said were based on a complaint from a former employee.

“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,” hospital spokeswoman Annie Mackin said in a statement to The Hill. 

“We do not discriminate against any employees for exercising their rights to opt out of procedures to which they object,” Mackin said

Mackin added that the OCR did not inform hospital it was planning to announce the violation on Wednesday.

“We have engaged with representatives from OCR about the complaint over the past nine months,” Mackin said. “Unfortunately, OCR instead chose to proceed with the announcement it issued today." 

According to the agency, on at least one occasion the nurse was led to believe her assistance was needed for a nonabortion procedure, when in fact it was an abortion procedure. When she discovered the truth, the agency said the nurse objected, but was forced to participate out of fear the hospital would fire her, or report her to licensing authorities.

The Trump administration has made it a priority to protect Christians and other health workers who oppose abortion, or who object to providing transition-related care for transgender individuals. 

Wednesday’s announcement was the first conscience protection case alleging that a health care worker was forced to participate in an abortion since Health and Human Services established a new conscience and religious freedom division last year.

The agency has since issued a new policy to protect health workers and institutions from having to violate their religious or moral beliefs by participating in abortions, providing contraception, sterilization or other procedures.

The conscience protection rules also align with OCR’s updated mission statement, which was revised in May to emphasize a focus on protecting “conscience and religious freedom.”

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

She said the hospital is “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.”