DOJ drops case of Vermont hospital allegedly forcing nurse to participate in abortion

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The Justice Department has declined to pursue a case involving a nurse in Vermont who was allegedly forced to participate in an abortion.

Filed on Friday, the DOJ’s notice of dismissal in Vermont’s district court came months after the Trump administration brought the suit. The brief notice doesn’t offer much by way of explanation, but rather reads: “Defendant University of Vermont Medical Center has not served an answer or motion for summary judgment in this action. The United States accordingly notices voluntary dismissal of this action, without prejudice.”

Former administration officials are describing the move as unprecedented and a dereliction of duty.

“Its a dereliction of duty that is an insult to the bipartisan consensus that says you cannot force people to assist in abortions,” said Roger Severino, the former head of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights (OCR). Severino had referred the case to the Justice Department after an apparent delay within the department. 

Fox News previously reported on how multiple Trump administration officials blamed HHS’ general counsel for slow-walking a conservative agenda at the department.

Both Severino and John Daukas, who served as former acting assistant attorney general for civil rights under Trump, told Fox News the move was a stark departure from normal practice. 

“It’s very hard to understand how anybody could support forcing someone to perform an abortion, who thinks that they’re killing an innocent life,” said Daukas.

“I think that’s just outrageous, and I can’t believe the Justice Department dropped the lawsuit. Setting the morality aside, the law is clear,” he said. He was referring to the Church amendment, which was passed after the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade. 

While announcing the suit in December, DOJ alleged that the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMC) scheduled the nurse to assist with an elective abortion despite knowing her objections to the procedure. In doing so, DOJ argued, UVMC purportedly violated a law prohibiting HHS grantees from discriminating against health care providers who hold conscience objections to abortion.

DOJ and HHS did not respond to Fox News’ request for comment, but UVMC praised the department’s decision and maintained that it complied with legal requirements.

“We were pleased to learn that the United States Department of Justice has voluntarily dismissed the federal lawsuit against the UVM Medical Center regarding our reproductive care opt-out policies and procedures, which we had urged them to do since the moment it was filed,” said Dr. Steve Leffler, president and chief operating officer of the UVM Medical Center.

“We are committed to meeting the medical needs of our patients, while respecting the religious and moral beliefs of our employees. Our opt-out policies and practices for employees who object to participating in certain medical procedures, including abortion, are strong and in full compliance with federal law, and we have only strengthened them over the past two years. As Vermont’s academic, tertiary care center, we have an obligation to provide access to the full spectrum of timely and safe health care services, including abortions, to our patients who rely on us.”

Conservatives raise concerns about conscience protections under Biden

Friday’s filing raised already-simmering questions about how the new administration would shield religious health providers from engaging in procedures with which they disagreed – something Severino’s office made a priority in recent years.

Alongside the Vermont referral, Trump’s HHS also severed funding for California’s Medicaid program as it forced health insurers to cover abortions. It’s unclear how HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra will resolve that issue. 

Conservatives, like Severino, have also worried that President Biden’s administration interprets federal law in a way that will end up limiting religious individuals’ conscience protections. 

In May, he and others sounded the alarm about HHS’ rule reversing the Trump administration’s decision to interpret a sex discrimination statute as applying to just biological sex rather than including gender identity or sexual orientation.

Advocates say that in doing so, the Biden administration would require federally funded hospitals and insurers to support gender-related treatments and procedures — both of which conflict with Catholic teaching and what other religions believe.

May’s announcement maintained that the HHS Office of Civil Rights (OCR) will abide by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which restricts the federal government’s ability to burden a citizen’s free exercise of their religion. In justifying the move, HHS cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Bostock v. Clayton County, which ruled that sex discrimination included sexual orientation. Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion, however, left room for religious exemptions.  

Besides the Church amendment, other post-Roe policies have come under scrutiny in the new administration. House Democrats, for example, have pursued, with Biden’s backing, a budget that would remove a decades-old provision barring federal taxpayer funding of most abortions. That and other related measures were also excluded from House Democrats’ appropriations packages in recent weeks.

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