Growing Threat: Abortion Conscience Coercion at Med Schools

Pro-life medical and nursing students are mobilizing to fight back at Vanderbilt and across the country.

(photo: Shutterstock)

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 didn't want to be identified but said he had recently spoken with a medical student in Pennsylvania who had asked 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 declined to identify the medical school because he had not been authorized by the student.
“The message is clear and it’s being sent to the various student groups in the hospitals,” he 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.

Burke said he has also been challenged by some lecturers for his pro-life views, and weathered heavy criticisms from fellow medical students and residents.

“There is a lot of peer pressure,” Burke said. “I’ve been told that what I’m doing is not very intelligent, that I’m very close-minded, and that I’m putting my rights over the patient’s rights.”

Violates Church Amendment

At Vanderbilt University, 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.”

“They did the right thing in revoking it,” Bowman said. “This case illustrates that students and medical professionals can fight back and can win against these gargantuan, pro-abortion medical institutions.”

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.

‘Critical Need’

Medical Students for Life of America has been collaborating with the Alliance Defense Fund to assist students facing assaults on their pro-life consciences from a medical establishment seemingly eager to advance a pro-abortion agenda.

“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.”

The spokesman for Medical Students for Life 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.”

Register correspondent Brian Fraga writes from New Bedford, Massachusetts.