A Veterans Affairs health care employee working in Texas sued the department Wednesday over its new abortion policy, saying the change violates her religious beliefs as well as state law.
The lawsuit is the first of numerous expected legal challenges to VA officials’ announcement in September that they would offer abortion access to veterans and eligible dependents in cases of rape, incest and pregnancies that endanger the life or health of an individual.
VA facilities began performing some abortions in the weeks after the policy change, although officials have not released numbers on how many of the procedures have been carried out.
Department officials have also insisted that because they are on federal property, their operations are not bound by state laws. Republican attorneys general in multiple states have vowed to challenge that claim and prosecute physicians who perform abortions at VA facilities in states where the practice is outlawed.
The plaintiff in the Texas lawsuit — Stephanie Carter, a nurse practitioner at the Olin E. Teague Veterans’ Center in Temple — is a 23-year VA employee and Army veteran who says in legal filings that she cannot “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.”
The lawsuit was filed on Carter’s behalf by First Liberty Institute, a nonprofit Christian conservative legal group based in Texas. In a statement, officials said the new policy violates a host of religious liberty protections.
“It is unconscionable that the Biden administration would force health care workers at VA facilities to violate their consciences,” said Danielle Runyan, senior counsel for the institute. “The VA should be focused on caring for the men and women who bravely served to protect our country, not on performing illegal abortions.”
In a statement, VA Press Secretary Terrence Hayes said he would not directly comment on the ongoing litigation, but said that supervisors are working with staff who object to the abortion decision.
“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.
“We have provided all VA health care employees with this information … and have encouraged employees to inform their supervisors of any requests for exemptions.”
The lawsuit (filed in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas) alleges that allowing abortions at VA facilities “substantially burdens Ms. Carter’s sincerely held religious beliefs and forces her to choose between her job and her religious convictions.”
It also states that Carter was denied accommodations by her supervisor to opt out of handling and distributing medications that could be used to end a pregnancy.
The lawsuit asks for the court to block all abortions at the Texas VA facility. Department officials have said the policy change was needed because of the growing number of states looking to block access to abortions in the wake of last summer’s Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.
In September, VA Under Secretary for Health Dr. Shereef Elnahal told members of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee that the department expects to perform about 1,000 abortions annually under the new rule.
Veterans can also discuss abortion options outside the VA system with department physicians and counselors.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.