The HHS Civil Rights Office has accused the University of Vermont Medical Center violate federal law on the protection of conscience by requiring that a nurse participate in an elective abortion.
Roger Severino, the director of the office, said on Wednesday that the UVMC had scheduled the nurse to participate in the procedure even though she had previously expressed her religious or moral objection to participation. He declined to discuss details of the patient’s situation, such as the condition of the fetus and gestational age.
OCR has given UVMC 30 days to bring its conscience and personnel protection policies into line with the Church’s federal amendments, or risk losing federal funding to the Health Resources and Services Administration. Severino did not mention any potential payment limits for Medicare or Medicaid.
He said the UVMC was not cooperative with the OCR investigation and did not make it clear that it will voluntarily participate in changing its policies.
UVMC disputed the claims, which it claimed were based on a complaint of a former employee.
“We categorically deny that we schedule employees to participate in proceedings they oppose,” said UVMC spokeswoman Annie Mackin. “We promptly and thoroughly investigated (the allegations) and determined that they were not supported by the facts.”
She added that her establishment had not been informed by the OCR that the notice of violation would be announced on Wednesday.
This is the first conscience protection case involving an allegation that a member of the medical staff was forced to participate in an abortion against their will since the HHS created a new division of conscience and religious freedom last year in OCR.
Severino said two previous enforcement actions were filed against California and Hawaii for allegedly demanding crisis pregnancy centers, which advise women against abortion, to give women information about abortion options. .
He said that since the launch of the new Conscience Office, the number of complaints received by OCR regarding violations of conscience protection rules has grown from around one per year to hundreds per year. He declined to discuss the percentage of forced participation in abortions.
“We don’t want a society where, on the issue of life and death, people are forced to violate their beliefs, especially when abortion and healthcare professionals are involved,” he said. -he declares. “These people are trained to save lives, not take them.
“How could this happen in America today?” he added. “This will continue unless there is vigorous enforcement.”
He said the action against UVMC was based on existing federal law, not a new conscience protection rule issued by the Trump administration that goes into effect on November 22.
In 2013, the OCR dealt with a complaint from a nurse, Cathy Cenzon-DeCarlo, alleging that New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital forced her to participate in a second abortion in 2009 against her objections, or face penalties. disciplinary. The OCR caused the hospital to change its policies and procedures.
Severino pushed aside questions about the existence of complicating factors in the UVMC patient’s pregnancy that were involved in the decision to perform an abortion. He said such factors were irrelevant in OCR’s decision to sanction UVMC.
“Church amendments offer protection (of conscience) to people,” he said. “He says abortion, he doesn’t make distinctions… The limit drawn by law is abortion, period.”
Mackin of UVMC said his organization “has formal and strong protections that protect both the religious, ethical and cultural beliefs of our employees, as well as the rights of our patients to access a safe and legal abortion. do not discriminate against any employee for exercising their right to opt out of proceedings they oppose.
She added that UVMC is willing to work in cooperation with OCR to identify ways to further support the conscience and religious rights of employees, in accordance with legal and ethical obligations to patients.
Nicole Huberfeld, professor of health law and ethics at Boston University, said healthcare organizations have been aware of conscience protection rules for a long time and historically there has been little of complaints.
“The Office of Conscience and Religious Freedom appears to be a solution in search of a problem,” she said. “It seems to me that he is issuing this notice of violation in order to prove that it exists for a reason. I just don’t think there is a sudden increase in violations of conscience.”