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Supreme Court of the United States

Vanderbilt University: Pro-Lifers Need Not Apply. Will the Obama Administration Enforce Federal Law?

October 17, 2017

It has come to this.  Followers of this blog know all too well the trend toward suppression of Christian and pro-life speech on campus.  Recently, this has culminated in cases like that of Julea Ward, dismissed just weeks before graduation from her Eastern Michigan University counseling program because she, consistent with the ethical rules of the counseling profession, referred a same sex couple seeking “marital” counseling to another counselor.  Christian students being dismissed from university programs if they will not alter or compromise their religious beliefs.

Vanderbilt University has a much simpler approach to the same “problem.”  Applicants to its Nurse Residency Program in Women’s Health (including obstetrics, gynecology, labor and delivery, etc.) must provide an “acknowledgment” that, if admitted, they will be expected to assist in abortions.  Applications that do not include this acknowledgment “will not be considered.” Instead of ushering Christian and pro-life students out the back door, Vandy just doesn’t let them in the front door in the first place.

ADF has today filed a formal complaint with the Department of Health & Human Services, asking it to enforce federal law and prohibit Vanderbilt from illegally discriminating against our client, a well qualified nursing student who happens also to be pro-life and unwilling to violate her conscience by assisting in abortions.   As another of ADF’s clients, Cathy Cenzon-DeCarlo can attest, Vanderbilt’s requirement could mean that a nursing resident must assist in preparing the woman and the implements for the abortion, assisting the physician through the abortion, and even handling and disposing of body parts of the dismembered child.

An astute reader may be thinking that, as awful as Vanderbilt’s policy is, the First Amendment has no application here.  And they’d be right.  Vanderbilt is a private university unconstrained by the First Amendment.  However, in the most recent year for which information is available, FY2008, Vanderbilt also received over three hundred million dollars ($300,000,000) in discretionary funding from the Department of Health & Human Services, making it the 15th most funded HHS grantee. And this doesn’t even include millions in nondiscretionary appropriations that come from HHS.

And when Vanderbilt accepted those federal taxpayer dollars it agreed to comply with federal law, including the Church Amendments.  Part (e) of the Church Amendments, passed by an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress and signed into law by President Carter, is particularly applicable here:

No entity which receives, … any grant, contract, loan, loan guarantee, or interest subsidy under the Public Health Service Act [and additional other HHS administered laws]  may deny admission or otherwise discriminate against any applicant (including applicants for internships and residencies) for training or study because of the applicant’s reluctance, or willingness, to counsel, suggest, recommend, assist, or in any way participate in the performance of abortions or sterilizations contrary to or consistent with the applicant’s religious beliefs or moral convictions.

42 U.S.C. §300a-7(e).  Vanderbilt pledges to comply with this federal law when it takes hundreds of millions of dollars in federal taxpayer dollars.  Vanderbilt would undoubtedly hold its applicants to their “acknowledgment” that they will be expected to perform abortions even while it expects the federal government (and federal taxpayers) to ignore Vanderbilt’s own promises.

Sadly, this controversy comes at a time when it is suddenly highly controversial for a medical professional to refuse to perform or assist in abortions.  This is a very recent phenomenon.  While the phrase is often excised by modern medical schools, physicians taking the Hippocratic Oath for millennia promised, “I will not give a woman an abortive remedy.” And as detailed more thoroughly here, the conscience of pro-life medical professionals was near universally respected even a generation ago.

The Church Amendments were adopted in the wake of Roe v. Wade as the ACLU and pro-abortion groups were filing lawsuits to try to force Catholic hospitals to perform abortions.  They did this even though Roe and its companion case, Doe v. Boltonboth cited favorably (perhaps even relied upon) the protection of rights of conscience by the AMA and others.  Congress responded with virtual unanimity, passing the original portions of the Church Amendments with only a single no vote in each chamber: 372 to 1 in the House and 92 to 1 in the Senate.  One Senator took the floor to defend the protection of medical professionals from being compelled to assist in abortions, saying that if it were challenged by pro-abortion forces:

I believe that the Court will sustain the judgment to protect individual rights and liberties.  I believe that the Court will sustain the judgment of Congress that, in order to give full protection to the religious freedom of physicians and others, it is necessary to extend the exemption … to the facilities where they practice their profession and livelihood.”  Cong. Rec. 9602 (March 27,1973).

That stalwart defender of the rights of conscience of pro-life healthcare workers was Senator Edward Kennedy.  And the later addition of part (e) of the Church Amendments during one of the more lopsided (for Democrats) congresses in decades was hardly any more controversial.  As much as some would like to pretend that the assertion of rights of conscience by healthcare workers is some recent trend, the fact is that it is the recent reluctance to accommodate conscience that is unique.  And at a time when we are suffering from a shortage of nurses, it is nonsensical to bar the door altogether to persons ready and willing to serve just because they will not compromise their conscience and assist in the killing of an unborn child.

Vanderbilt promised to comply with the Church Amendments, but it is blatantly breaking that promise.  ADF’s complaint, filed by my colleague Matt Bowman, asks HHS to inform us by January 26 (the effective deadline to apply to the program) if it will enforce the law and defend our client’s rights of conscience or permit Vanderbilt to violate federal law and its agreement with the taxpayers by barring the door to pro-life applicants.

Alliance Defending Freedom

Alliance Defending Freedom

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Alliance Defending Freedom advocates for your right to freely live out your faith

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