Crime and Justice

Justice Department drops abortion lawsuit against UVM Medical Center

The University of Vermont Medical Center in Burlington on Monday, November 23, 2020. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Updated at 6 p.m.

The U.S. Department of Justice has dropped a civil lawsuit accusing the University of Vermont Medical Center of forcing a nurse to assist in an abortion procedure despite the nurse’s religious objections. 

The lawsuit was filed in federal court in Vermont during the waning days of the Trump administration in December 2020. Now, under the Biden administration, the Justice Department has reversed course. 

“Plaintiff United States notices dismissal of this action,” stated a filing submitted Friday by Jonathan Ophardt, the acting U.S. attorney for Vermont, and Matthew Donnelly, an attorney with the Justice Department’s Washington-based Civil Rights Division. 

The lawsuit had alleged that the hospital violated the Church Amendments, which prohibit recipients of federal funds from discriminating against health care providers who refuse to take part in certain procedures based on moral or religious objections.

Representatives of the hospital denied any wrongdoing at the time and said they were surprised that the federal government was pursuing legal action. 

In a statement issued ahead of the lawsuit’s filing last year, the medical center said that, since receiving a notice of violation from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Civil Rights in the summer of 2019, “the hospital has only strengthened its already compliant provider opt-out policies and practices.”

Dr. Stephen Leffler, president and chief operating officer of UVM Medical Center, said Monday he was pleased to learn of the federal government’s action, which, he added, the hospital “had urged them to do since the moment” it was brought. 

“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,” he said in the statement. 

“As Vermont’s academic, tertiary care center,” Leffler added, “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.”

Kraig LaPorte, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Vermont, declined comment Monday on that matter, referring questions to the Justice Department’s public affairs office in Washington. 

That office issued a brief statement when contacted Monday.

“The Department of Justice,” the statement reads, “voluntarily dismissed this lawsuit in light of the Department of Health and Human Services’ recent decision to withdraw the referral and its request that we dismiss the suit.”   

The Justice Department referred further questions or comments to HHS. 

“After a detailed evaluation of the underlying legal theory used to issue a referral to the Department of Justice,” according to a statement issued Monday by HHS, “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 also stated it has dropped its notice of violation issued against UVM Medical Center on Friday. 

“HHS continues to evaluate the underlying facts of the matter,” the statement added, “and has notified today all the parties as to its actions.”

Health and Human Services said in August 2019 that it had determined the hospital had violated the Church Amendments.

That letter came from Roger Severino, then-director of HHS’ Office for Civil Rights. Severino called on the hospital to change its policies or face the risk of losing federal funding.

The incident at issue stemmed from a nurse’s complaint filed in May 2018.  

An HHS investigation found that the hospital “intentionally, unnecessarily and knowingly” scheduled nurses who had moral or religious objection to abortion to assist in abortion procedures and that the hospital discriminates against health care personnel who object to abortion. 

“UVMMC has forced and attempted to force health care personnel (including nurses) into assisting with abortion over their conscience-based objections,” Severino wrote.  

The nurse in the case, a Catholic, told investigators she had been led to believe a procedure she was scheduled for was not an elective abortion. She then told investigators she objected when she discovered that it was. 

However, the nurse said, she was coerced into taking part in the abortion and feared she would be fired or reported to licensing authorities if she objected, Severino wrote.  

The hospital investigated and did not substantiate the claims made by the nurse, who no longer works at the hospital, a statement from the medical center said at that time. 

In announcing the lawsuit in December 2020, the Justice Department issued a press release headlined, “Justice Department Defends Health Care Workers from Being Forced to Perform Abortions with Vermont Lawsuit.” 

Severino resigned from his position on Jan 15, just days before the change in presidential administrations. 

The case has attracted national attention since it became public in an article published in the summer of 2019 by The Atlantic. 

Since the legal action was brought, the political nature of it has been at its center, with claims that the Trump administration was pursuing the matter as a play to his political base, which included antiabortion activists and social conservatives. 

The initial complaint was filed by Francis Manion, a lawyer for the right-wing American Center for Law and Justice, who represented  the nurse. Jay Sekulow is the chief counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice. He played a key role as part of Trump’s legal team advising him in connection with investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. 

In the days before the lawsuit was filed in December 2020, Leffler, UVM president, had strong words directed at the HHS’ Office of Civil Rights, saying that its “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.’

Meagan Gallagher, president and CEO of Planned Parenthood Vermont Action Fund, was more direct in December 2020 in calling out what she said was a political ploy by the Trump administration.

“This latest attack on the UVM Medical Center is nothing more than a political game by a lame-duck administration,” Gallagher said. “As health care providers, we will continue doing everything we can to ensure that patients have access to compassionate abortion care.”

In a statement Monday, Lucy Leriche, vice president of Planned Parenthood Vermont Action Fund, reiterated those comments. 

“The Department of Justice did the right thing by dropping this politically motivated lawsuit against UVM Medical Center,” Leriche said. “For patients, health care is personal, not political, and it is time to end government interference when it comes to abortion care.”

The lawsuit had never moved forward since the Biden administration took office in January, with no substantive motions filed in case for the past several months prior to the notice of dismissal Friday. 

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