Growing Threat: Abortion Conscience Coercion at Med Schools

Pro-life medical and nursing students across the country say they face the same pressures to violate their consciences as two recent applicants to Vanderbilt University’s nursing residency program, who were told that they would have been required to participate in abortions.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Pro-life medical and nursing students across the country say they face the same pressures to violate their consciences as two recent applicants to Vanderbilt University’s nursing residency program who were told that they would have been required to participate in abortions.

“No one really knows how common it is, but we believe it goes on every day at virtually every medical school in the United States,” said a spokesman for Medical Students for Life of America, a growing pro-life organization with 25 chapters at medical schools across the country.

The spokesman did not wish to identify himself but said a medical student in Pennsylvania told him recently about asking her professor, a late-term abortionist, whether a pro-life student should pursue a residency at the university hospital.

“The abortionist said, ‘If you’re pro-life, you won’t want to work here,’” said the spokesman, who said the student did not authorize him to identify the medical school.

“The message is clear,” he said , “and it’s being sent to the various student groups in the hospitals.”

Dr. John Bruchalski, an obstetrics gynecologist who founded the Tepeyac Family Center, a pro-life OB-GYN practice in Fairfax, Va., said he often hears similar stories from medical students and residents.

“There are some programs that pressure you, and they will tell you that if (being pro-life) is what you believe, then you should not go into OB-GYN because you need to provide full reproductive choices,” Bruchalski said.

Brian Burke, a medical student at the University of Toledo in Ohio, said he was not surprised by the Vanderbilt case. Burke said he has friends who have left residency programs at other medical schools because they refused to prescribe contraception or participate in abortions.

Violates Church Amendment

At Vanderbilt, located in Nashville, Tenn., two prospective nursing students with pro-life convictions balked at the school’s requirement that they participate in abortions. They would have had to sign an admission form stating: “I am aware that I may be providing nursing care for women who are having ... procedures, including termination of pregnancy.”

The form also stated: “If you feel you cannot provide care to women during this type of event, we encourage you to apply to a different track of the Nurse Residency Program to explore opportunities that may best fit your skills and career goals.”

On Jan. 12, the Alliance Defense Fund, a legal alliance of Christian attorneys dedicated to defending religious freedom, filed a civil-rights complaint on behalf of the Vanderbilt students with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The Alliance Defense Fund said the university’s nursing residency requirement violated a federal law prohibiting federal grant recipients from forcing students or health-care workers to participate in abortions contrary to their religious beliefs or moral convictions. Attorneys said Vanderbilt receives more than $300 million a year in federal tax dollars.

“This was a blatant violation of a federal law, commonly known as the Church Amendment, which was passed by Congress in the 1970s, that said health-care personnel and medical students cannot be forced to assist or participate in an abortion,” said Matt Bowman, an Alliance Defense Fund attorney who handled the complaint on behalf of the Vanderbilt students.

A day after the ADF filed the complaint, Vanderbilt University removed the abortion clause from the admission form and sent an e-mail to applicants of the program, stating that “no health-care provider is required to participate in a procedure terminating a pregnancy if such participation would be contrary to an individual’s religious beliefs or moral convictions.”

A Vanderbilt spokesman, John Howser, commenting on this article as it appeared at, said the facts surrounding the issue “have been misrepresented by the Alliance Defense Fund.”

“The change that was made following ADF’s complaint was targeted at clarifying language that accompanied applications for Vanderbilt’s Nursing Residency Program to eliminate confusion,” Howser wrote. “The change was not to the policy itself. Vanderbilt long has recognized and respected that some health-care providers may have religious beliefs or ethical convictions that conflict with this medical procedure. No Vanderbilt health-care provider is required to participate in this procedure if such participation would be contrary to their religious beliefs or moral convictions. However, they may be asked to care for the patient before or after the procedure in the same professional and compassionate manner that is expected of all Vanderbilt health-care providers. It is this reference to caring for patients that was misconstrued as meaning individuals would be required to participate in a termination.”

Bowman said Vanderbilt was trying to obscure the issue by referring to a different university policy that applies to existing employees and conscience.

“Vanderbilt didn’t merely clarify their abortion pledge. They deleted it, and replaced it with a promise to honor conscience rights, but only after ADF intervened,” Bowman said. “Until ADF intervened, Vanderbilt’s application not only didn’t tell applicants they had another policy letting them refuse to assist abortions — Vanderbilt’s application positively forced nurses to pledge to assist abortions in violation of the law and, apparently, in violation of their own policy. People should believe Vanderbilt’s actions in deleting their abortion pledge, but not their words in denying that it ever existed.”

John Brehany, executive director of the Catholic Medical Association, said tracking cases like Vanderbilt’s is often difficult because the pressures are usually more subtle. In many cases, vague language in residency contracts requiring students to offer “standard medical care” is cited to justify participation in abortion.

“The Vanderbilt situation stood out because the attempted coercion was in black and white,” Brehany said, adding that he would not be surprised to see more cases like Vanderbilt’s as medical and legal scholars continue their efforts to peck away at conscience protections in the interest of expanding abortion access.

“We need to improve the current legislative protections for conscience rights,” Brehany said.

Medical Students for Life of America has been collaborating with the Alliance Defense Fund to assist students pressured to violate their consciences.

“Universities and medical institutions across the country are advancing an idea of medical practice that would require abortions in the field of care for pregnant women,” said Bowman, who charged that “elite members” of the medical profession are “radical abortion advocates.”

“They not only want to increase abortions — they want to require medical professionals to be involved in them,” he said. “The abortion industry is declining. They know if they do not attack conscience rights and force pro-life people and Christians to assist in abortions, then the abortion industry will wither on the vine for lack of participation.”

“Since the mid-1990s, the numbers of abortionists in the country have dropped from 2,500 to about 1,700 today,” Bruchalski said. “Once you experience the reality that you are tearing apart a human life, it becomes repugnant for many people.”

The spokesman for Medical Students for Life of America said there is a “critical need” to have a pro-life presence at college campuses and medical schools, given that college-aged women account for 52% of those seeking abortions. He said Medical Students for Life of America is working to stem that tide.

“We have the potential to save 30,000 babies,” he said, “just by changing the mind of one pro-choice medical student.”

Brian Fraga writes from New Bedford, Massachusetts.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.