Trump administration puts Vermont hospital on notice for allegedly forcing Catholic nurse to help with abortion

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The Trump administration sent a notice Wednesday to the University of Vermont Medical Center after a federal investigation concluded the hospital forced a Catholic nurse to assist with abortion despite her objections to the procedure.

The hospital has 30 days to show it won’t force healthcare workers to violate their beliefs. If it does not, the complaint will go to another agency, the Health Resources and Services Administration, which will kick off a review process. The Burlington, Vermont-based hospital may lose government funding if it fails to make changes.

“We do not want a society where on the issue of life and death people are forced to violate their deepest-held beliefs,” Roger Severino, director of the Office for Civil Rights, said in a phone call with reporters Wednesday.

The University of Vermont Medical Center did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Severino said the hospital contests the allegations and the investigation. According to the Trump administration, the University of Vermont Medical Center received $1.6 million over three years, and Severino said the agency had interviewed witnesses and had “more than sufficient evidence to support our notice of violation.”

The nurse had already notified the hospital that she had religious objections to assisting in abortions, Severino said. On the day the incident occurred, she was scheduled to assist with a dilation and curettage, a procedure in which medical providers use surgical tools to empty the contents of a woman’s womb.

The procedure is used for both abortions and after a miscarriage, and the nurse thought she had been put on the schedule to assist in a miscarriage, which she didn’t object to. According to Severino, when she entered the hospital room, the doctor told her, “Please don’t hate me,” as he knew she objected to abortions.

“It was clear what was going to take place was the taking of a live human person,” Severino said.

The nurse tried to get out of the assignment but was declined, and she feared losing her job or being reported to licensing authorities.

“She relented and has been traumatized ever since,” Severino said.

The abortion, he said, was not an emergency situation. He declined to provide other details, such as how far into the pregnancy the patient was, but accused the hospital of discriminating against the nurse as well as other healthcare workers there who have religious or moral objections to abortions.

The Trump administration last year added the Conscience and Religious Freedom Division to the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate complaints like the one made public on Wednesday. The latest is the third such enforcement the Trump administration has taken. The other two cases happened in California and Hawaii after healthcare workers declined to refer patients for an abortion.

Severino said the agency now gets hundreds of conscience objections a year, a jump from the average of one a year that the Obama administration got.

Severino stressed that the latest action did not fall under a Trump administration rule issued in May that lets medical workers file civil rights complaints to the federal government when they are forced against their religious or moral beliefs to discuss, refer, or participate in abortions, sterilizations, or medically assisted suicide.

The rule won’t be enforced until Nov. 22, Severino said.

Opponents of the rule call it the “healthcare refusal rule” and have said they worry healthcare workers would block patients from getting medical care or information when they need it. Liberal groups have sued to block the rule, as has California.

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