Dec. 16 (UPI) -- The Justice Department on Wednesday filed a lawsuit against the University of Vermont Medical Center, accusing it of forcing a woman to assist with an abortion against her religious objections.
In the lawsuit filed in the U.S. District Court of the District of Vermont, federal prosecutors accused the hospital of violating the Church Amendments, a federal anti-discrimination statute, when it scheduled the unnamed nurse to assist with an elective abortion despite the medical professional having place her name on an objector list against performing the medical procedure on religious grounds.
"No institution or person should force any healthcare provider to perform an abortion if doing so would violate the provider's religious beliefs or moral convictions," Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division said in a statement. "Federal law protects healthcare providers from having to choose between their job and participation in what they sincerely believe is the taking of an innocent human life."
Prosecutors said in the court document that the hospital not only deliberately scheduled the nurse to assist with the procedure but misled her to believe that she was scheduled to assist with an entirely different task "that did not involve the elective abortion of a fetus with a heartbeat."
"When Nurse 1 walked into the operation room to assist with the procedure that was already underway, the doctor looked at Nurse 1 and stated 'please don't hate me' in reference to Nurse 1's assistance with the elective abortion," the lawsuit states.
The nurse scheduler then refused to replace her with a non-objecting nurse to assist with the procedure, effectively forcing her to participate or place the patient's health in danger, the document said.
"This example makes up just part of UVMMC's ongoing pattern, practice and policy of discriminating against healthcare providers who believe that the performance, or the assistance in the performance, of abortions is contrary to their religious beliefs or moral convictions," the Justice Department said in a release.
The hospital said in a statement prior to the lawsuit being filed on Wednesday that it has already "modified and strengthened" it policies and practices concerning "the many beliefs of the thousands of care givers that work here" since the Health and Human Services Department filed a notice of violation against it in August of 2019.
The Office of Civil Right's "latest threats are not just baseless from a legal standpoint, they're an attack on reproductive care and we will do everything we can to protect our patients' access to the services they need," said Stephen Leffler, president of the medical center.
Vermont Attorney General T.J. Donovan issued a statement on Wednesday in support of the hospital, stating the allegations against it "raise serious constitutional concerns as an attack against the long-established, fundamental right to access abortion services."
"Abortion is legal and constitutional," Donovan wrote. "HHS' latest threat of enforcement action represents a last-ditch effort by the Trump administration to restrict a woman's access to abortion -- a theme that has permeated throughout Donald Trump's presidency."
"My office has been, and remains, committed to protecting access to healthcare for all Vermonters, including abortion services," he said.