Under Donald Trump, departments across the executive branch have made religious freedom a clear priority, and nowhere has that agenda been more prominent than at the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS. This morning, HHS officials will announce a new notice of violation, alleging that a major university medical center in Vermont forced a nurse to violate her conscience by assisting with an abortion.
The nurse, who is Catholic and works at the University of Vermont Medical Center, or UVMMC, had made it clear to her employer: She did not want to participate in abortion procedures for reasons of conscience. According to a complaint filed in May 2018 and a subsequent investigation, her wishes were not honored. After being told that she would be treating a patient who had experienced a miscarriage, she discovered that she had actually been scheduled to help with an elective abortion. According to a recently created policy, UVMMC can punish staffers who refuse to participate in abortions when the hospital is short-staffed, and the nurse’s boss allegedly would not allow her to step out of the procedure. Fearing retaliation, or that she would lose her job, the nurse agreed to go through with it. When she walked into the procedure room, the doctor allegedly said to her, “Don’t hate me.”
According to the Office for Civil Rights at HHS, UVMMC broke the law, and needs to change its staffing policy on abortion procedures. In a statement, a spokesperson for UVMMC wrote that the medical center “has robust, formal protections that strike the appropriate and legal balance between supporting our employees’ religious, ethical, and cultural beliefs, and making sure our patients are not denied access to safe and legal abortion.”
This case is the latest signal that the Trump administration is pointedly championing the rights of religious Americans. As Roger Severino, the head of the Office of Civil Rights, told me in an interview, “Religious-freedom laws are the ones mentioned in the very first amendment to the Constitution—they have pride of place. And they have been neglected for too long.”