A health care employee within the Department of Veterans Affairs on Wednesday sued the department over its recently altered abortion policy, alleging it violates state law and her religious beliefs.
The lawsuit is the first legal challenge to the new VA policy, announced Sept. 9, which offers abortion services to veterans and eligible dependents in cases of rape and incest or if the pregnancy endangers the life or health of the patient.
The VA began providing abortions to pregnant veterans and VA beneficiaries in the limited circumstances after the rule was published, but officials have not revealed how many such procedures have been performed.
The landmark rule has already raised questions about how the VA’s ability to perform abortions will conflict with state laws that ban or severely limit the procedure, enacted in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The Department of Justice has said that the VA policy is a “lawful exercise” of the department’s authority, and that states can’t penalize the department’s employees who provide abortions in accordance with the rule. But this hasn’t shielded the VA from facing lawsuits from states that have been more aggressive in curbing abortion, as seen Wednesday.
The lawsuit — filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas — alleges that the plaintiff, Stephanie Carter, a nurse practitioner that has worked with the VA for 23 years, can’t “work in a facility that performs abortion services for reasons other than to save the life of the mother because … unborn babies are created in the image of God and should be protected.”
Carter works at the Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Center in Temple, Texas.
Filed on Carter’s behalf by First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit Christian conservative legal group, the lawsuit claims the VA policy “substantially burdens Ms. Carter’s sincerely held religious beliefs and forces her to choose between her job and her religious convictions.”
The lawsuit further states that Carter’s supervisor didn’t give her a way to decline distributing medications used to end first trimester pregnancies, and that in providing such services she “risks prosecution and civil liability under Texas law for performing or assisting in abortions.”
The complaint goes on to ask for the court to block all abortions at the Temple VA facility.
VA press secretary Terrence Hayes told Military Times that he won’t comment on ongoing litigation but that supervisors are working to accommodate employees who object to the abortion policy.
“From the moment VA announced this new rule, Secretary [Denis] McDonough has made clear to all employees that their religious beliefs are protected here at VA,” he said. “We are currently honoring exemption requests that come through VA supervisors.”