Justice Department Defends Health Care Workers from Being Forced to Perform Abortions with Vermont Lawsuit

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division today filed a civil lawsuit in Vermont federal court against the University of Vermont Medical Center (UVMMC) for violating the federal anti-discrimination statute known as the “Church Amendments.” That statute prohibits health care entities like UVMMC from discriminating against health care workers who follow their conscience and refuse to perform or assist with abortions. 

“No institution or person should force any health care provider to perform an abortion if doing so would violate the provider’s religious beliefs or moral convictions. This kind of indecent coercion violates everything this country stands for,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division. “Federal law protects health care providers from having to choose between their job and participation in what they sincerely believe is the taking of an innocent human life. Coercing people to perform abortions violates the law, and the U.S. Department of Justice will not stand for this shocking and outrageous attack against the right of all people in this free country to follow their conscience.” 

The United States’ complaint alleges that UVMMC violated the Church Amendments when it chose intentionally and willfully to discriminate against a nurse who plainly made her objection to participating in abortions based on her religious beliefs or moral convictions known to UVMMC. Despite knowing of her objection, UVMMC deliberately scheduled this nurse to assist with an elective abortion while deceptively misleading her to believe the procedure did not involve abortion. Once the deceived nurse entered the procedure room she learned the true nature of the procedure. After she reiterated her objection, UVMMC refused to find a non-objecting nurse to take over, effectively forcing the nurse to continue assisting in the abortion (or abandon the patient) despite her well-known religious objection. This example makes up just part of UVMMC’s ongoing pattern, practice, and policy of discriminating against health care providers who believe that the performance, or the assistance in the performance, of abortions is contrary to their religious beliefs or moral convictions.

In response to the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, Congress nearly unanimously enacted the Church Amendments, named for Senator Frank Church of Idaho. The Church Amendments prohibit grantees of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) from discriminating against health care personnel who “refuse[ ] to perform or assist in the performance of [an] abortion on the grounds that his performance or assistance in the performance of the procedure or abortion would be contrary to his religious beliefs or moral convictions.” 42 U.S.C. § 300a-7(c)(1). HHS has provided such grant funding to UVMMC since 1998, including over 1.6 million dollars in FY2018-FY2020. 

The case originated from an investigation by HHS. HHS’s investigation found UVMMC in violation of the Church Amendments, and referred the violation to the U.S. Department of Justice for enforcement after UVMMC refused to voluntarily correct its illegal actions.

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    The Department of Defense (DOD) has made progress in establishing valid and reliable cost baselines for its enterprise business operations and has additional efforts ongoing. DOD's January 2020 report responding to section 921 of the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 addressed most of the key requirements from that section but also had some limitations, which DOD acknowledged. For example, the baselines included only labor and information technology costs because DOD's financial data do not attribute costs to other specific activities required under section 921. However, DOD officials told GAO they have developed and are continuing to refine baselines for all of the department's enterprise business operations, such as financial and human resource management, to enable DOD to better track the resources devoted to these operations and the progress of reform. While still in progress, this effort shows promise in addressing the weaknesses in DOD's section 921 report and in meeting the need for consistent baselines for DOD's reform efforts that GAO has previously identified. GAO found that DOD's reported savings of $37 billion from its reform efforts and a Defense-Wide Review to better align resources are largely reflected in its budget materials; however, the savings were not always well documented or consistent with the department's definitions of reform. Specifically: DOD had limited information on the analysis underlying its savings estimates, including (1) economic assumptions, (2) alternative options, and (3) any costs of taking the actions to realize savings, such as opportunity costs. Therefore, GAO was unable to determine the quality of the analysis that led to DOD's savings decisions. Further, some of the cost savings initiatives were not clearly aligned with DOD's definitions of reform, and thus DOD may have overstated savings that came from its reform efforts rather than other sources of savings, like cost avoidance. For example, one initiative was based on the delay of military construction projects. According to DOD officials, this was done to fund higher priorities. But if a delayed project is still planned, the costs will likely be realized in a future year. Without processes to standardize development and documentation of savings and to consistently identify reform savings based on reform definitions, decision makers may lack reliable information on DOD's estimated reform savings. In coordinating its reform efforts, DOD has generally followed leading practices for collaboration, but there is a risk that this collaboration may not be sustained in light of any organizational changes that Congress or DOD may make. This risk is increased because the Office of the Chief Management Officer (OCMO) and other offices have not formalized and institutionalized these efforts through written policies or agreements. Without written policies or formal agreements that define how organizations should collaborate with regard to DOD's reform and efficiency efforts, current progress may be lost, and future coordination efforts may be hindered. DOD spends billions of dollars each year to maintain key business operations. Section 921 of the NDAA for FY 2019 established requirements for DOD to reform these operations and report on their efforts. DOD has also undertaken additional efforts to reform its operations in recent years. Section 921 called for GAO to assess the accuracy of DOD's reported cost baselines and savings, and section 1753 of the NDAA for FY 2020 called for GAO to report on the OCMO's efficiency initiatives. This report assesses the extent to which DOD has (1) established valid and reliable baseline cost estimates for its business operations; (2) established well-documented cost savings estimates reflecting its reforms; and (3) coordinated its reform efforts. GAO assessed documents supporting costs, savings estimates, and coordination efforts; interviewed DOD officials; observed demonstrations of DOD's reform tracking tools; and assessed DOD's efforts using selected criteria. GAO is making three recommendations—specifically, that DOD establish formal processes to standardize development and documentation of cost savings; ensure that reported savings are consistent with the department's definition of reform; and formalize policies or agreements on its reform efforts. DOD concurred with GAO's recommendations. For more information, contact Elizabeth Field at (202) 512-2775 or fielde1@gao.gov.
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  • Justice Department Reaches Settlement with San Antonio Housing Providers for Charging Unlawful Lease Termination Fees to Servicemembers
    In Crime News
    The Justice Department today announced that it has reached an agreement with the former owners of two apartment complexes in San Antonio, Texas, to resolve allegations that they violated the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) by imposing unlawful lease termination charges on 41 servicemembers and by refusing to allow four other servicemembers to terminate their leases early.
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    In Crime News
    A former investment manager was charged in an indictment unsealed today for his alleged participation in a scheme to defraud a North Carolina-based life insurance company out of over $34 million.
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  • Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: Efforts to Promote Diversity and Inclusion
    In U.S GAO News
    In 2019, the number of women on the boards of directors at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac—two government-sponsored enterprises (enterprises)—were five and three, respectively, slightly higher than in 2011. Female directors held leadership positions on the enterprises' boards for the first time in 2019, serving as vice chair at Fannie Mae and chair at Freddie Mac. The percentage of women in senior management positions remained relatively consistent for 2011 and 2018, while minority representation was higher in 2018 than in 2011 (see figure). The enterprises have implemented leading practices to support workforce diversity, such as career and networking events to recruit diverse populations and employee mentorship programs. Share of Women and Minorities in Senior Management at Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, 2011 and 2018 Note: Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac used diverse broker-dealers (such as minority- and women-owned) for financial transactions to a limited extent. In 2019, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac both paid about 6 percent of their financial transaction fees to diverse broker-dealers. The enterprises have taken steps to work with diverse broker-dealers more often, such as by lowering some capital requirements to allow participation by typically smaller, less-capitalized diverse broker-dealers. Broker-dealer representatives GAO interviewed said that enterprises had taken steps to increase their participation. However, some representatives noted that additional performance feedback and data on how they compare to larger firms would help them understand what business areas they could improve to meet standards for handling additional, more complex products. The enterprises said that some of the information on other firms is proprietary. In 2017, the Federal Housing Finance Agency (FHFA) began reviewing the diversity and inclusion efforts of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac as part of its annual examinations of the enterprises. In 2017, FHFA found the enterprises generally took steps to promote diversity and inclusion but made recommendations to improve both enterprises' programs. In response, the enterprises have directed more attention and resources to diversity efforts. FHFA officials told GAO the agency planned to review the diversity and inclusion of the enterprises' financial transactions in late 2020 and would update its examination manual to include a focus on activities in this area. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are government-sponsored enterprises regulated by FHFA that buy and pool mortgages into mortgage-backed securities. The Housing and Economic Recovery Act of 2008 requires the enterprises to promote diversity and inclusion in employment and related activities. GAO was asked to review the enterprises' diversity and inclusion efforts. This report examines, among other things, (1) trends in the diversity of the enterprises' boards and senior management; (2) the extent to which the enterprises used diverse broker-dealers and implemented practices to promote more diversity; and (3) FHFA oversight of the enterprises' diversity and inclusion efforts. To conduct this work, GAO analyzed enterprise and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data on the enterprises' workforces, boards, and broker-dealers; and reviewed FHFA and enterprise policies and regulations and previous GAO reports on these issues. GAO also interviewed FHFA and enterprise staff and a nongeneralizable sample of external stakeholders knowledgeable about broker-dealer diversity. For more information, contact Michael E. Clements at (202) 512-8678 or ClementsM@gao.gov.
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    In Human Health, Resources and Services
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