In its statement of values, the University of Vermont Medical Center says it respects “the dignity of all individuals” and promises to respond to their spiritual needs. Yet in one respect, it appears to have fallen short: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Resources notified the Burlington, Vt., hospital last week it violated federal law when it forced an operating room nurse to assist with an abortion against her religious beliefs.
The pro-life Catholic nurse, who previously told supervisors she could not participate in abortions, filed a complaint with HHS in May 2018. She said no one told her about the abortion until she walked into the room, when the doctor—knowing the nurse objected to abortion—said, “Don’t hate me.” Though other staff could have taken her place, the nurse’s supervisors required her to assist with the abortion anyway, according to HHS. The nurse, who is not named in the complaint, no longer works at the hospital.
A hospital investigation found no evidence, but a federal probe said the hospital broke the law.
The University of Vermont Medical Center conducted an internal investigation and said it did not find evidence to support the nurse’s allegations. Stephen Leffler, the hospital’s interim president, told Vermont Public Radio, to his knowledge, his organization had never compelled an employee to participate in a procedure against his or her conscience.
Federal investigators said the hospital forced the nurse and other medical staff to participate in abortions despite registered objections. More broadly, hospital policy violated federal law, according to HHS, by requiring nurses to assist in elective abortions when alternate arrangements could not be made.
The 18-month investigation concluded the hospital violated a section of law called the Church Amendments, named for the late Sen. Frank Church, D-Idaho. Congress enacted the law in 1973 as a response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, which led to the legalization of abortion nationwide. The amendments prohibit healthcare providers receiving federal funding from discriminating against employees who refuse to perform or assist with abortions because of their religious or moral convictions.
Nurses should not face such a moral dilemma in their jobs.
“Moral distress leads to a nurse’s sense that I can’t align with who I am,” said Christy Secor, professional ministries director for Nurses Christian Fellowship. “For a nurse to be talking about whether to stay in the profession carries a significant impact not only for the nurse but for the organization.”
Secor pointed to the American Nurses Association code of ethics, which defines moral distress as “the condition of knowing the morally right thing to do, but institutional, procedural, or social constraints make doing the right thing nearly impossible; threatens core values and moral integrity.”
“When nurses feel moral distress, they feel it at their core,” Secor said, adding she has talked with nurses who feel distressed not only by their organization’s participation in abortions but also in end-of-life care and situations when they are not allowed to pray with patients who ask for it.
HHS gave the University of Vermont Medical Center 30 days to work with the HHS Office of Civil Rights to revise its policies and remedy past discriminatory conduct. Noncompliance could result in the loss of federal funding. For the three years ending April 30, 2018, the university facility reported it spent $1.6 million in federal financial assistance.