The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has notified a federal court in Vermont that it is abandoning a lawsuit it filed on behalf of a nurse last December who was deceived into participating in an abortion procedure, in violation of a federal conscience law called the Church Amendment.

In 2017, a nurse employed by the University of Vermont Medical Center was misled into participating in what she was told was a procedure following a pregnant woman’s miscarriage, only to find out, once in the operating room, that the procedure was actually an elective abortion.

The nurse, who was on record as objecting to participating in abortions because of her religious beliefs, asked to be replaced, but her request was denied. Rather than abandon the patient and risk losing her job and nursing license, she stayed and assisted with the abortion, suffering emotional distress in the process. She then filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees federally funded hospitals.

The Church Amendment was passed in the 1970s following the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade, and prohibits hospitals funded by the Public Health Service Act from discriminating against doctors and nurses who refuse to participate in abortions.

After HHS’s Office for Civil Rights, headed at the time by Roger Severino, investigated the nurse’s complaint and notified the hospital in 2019 that a violation had occurred, it referred the case to DOJ for enforcement proceedings against the hospital. In December 2020, DOJ initiated a civil lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the District of Vermont asking for a declaration that the hospital had violated the rights of this nurse and other employees under the Church Amendment, and for an order directing the hospital to comply with the law going forward.

The change in administration in Washington, D.C., in January prompted a review by HHS, which resulted in it asking DOJ to drop the case, the Vermont news outlet, VTDigger, reported.

“After a detailed evaluation of the underlying legal theory used to issue a referral to the Department of Justice, the Department of Health and Human Services withdrew the original referral and requested DOJ dismiss the suit against the university of Vermont Medical Center, a request which was granted,” HHS said in a statement.

The nurse no longer works for the hospital, which continues to deny it ever violated her rights.

“We are committed to meeting the medical needs of our patients, while respecting the religious and moral beliefs of our employees,” the hospital said in a statement, according to Fox News. “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.”  

No one should be forced to assist in an abortion against their will. It’s disappointing that the current DOJ and HHS have reversed themselves on an issue of this significance. As the current administration and Congress continue to signal their rejection and abandonment of pro-life laws such as the Hyde and Weldon Amendments – and now the Church Amendment – Christians and conservatives who value preborn life and religious conscience should be concerned.

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