BreakPoint: Vigilant at Vanderbilt

Defending Religious Rights

If you’re a Christian nursing student, you shouldn’t have to sign away your faith.

It was a classic case of “We didn’t do it, and we promise not to do it again.” At Vanderbilt University, applicants to the nursing school’s residency program for women’s health discovered they were going to have to sign an ominous pledge: They had to agree to participate in abortions. If they had moral objections, they were told, they’d have to go elsewhere for their training.

Two fourth-year nursing students objected to both options. They contacted the Alliance Defense Fund, or ADF, which works to protect the religious rights of Americans. ADF lawyers reminded Vanderbilt that the school accepts over $300 million in federal tax dollars every year. Federal law prohibits grant recipients from doing what Vanderbilt was attempting to do: forcing students to engage in activities that violate their religious beliefs.

When the story hit the press, Vanderbilt’s medical center spokesman John Howser claimed the Alliance Defense Fund misunderstood the policy. For years, Howser said, a policy excusing students from participating in abortions has been in place. But Matt Bowman of the ADF said Vanderbilt was “being duplicitous by talking about the wrong policy.” The application for the women’s health track in the school’s residency program “specifically require[d] applicants to promise to assist in abortions,” he noted.

He’s right. On page 15 of the application, students were told that “often women are faced with many difficult decisions about their lives and health care. . . . One difficult decision women face is termination of pregnancy . . . . 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.”  In other words, candidates had to agree in writing to help with abortions. Outrageous!

Last month, the ADF filed a complaint with the Department of Health and Human Services.  The very next day, Vanderbilt backed down. It altered its application to make clear that nursing students would not be forced to help with abortions.  As ADF counsel Matt Bowman noted, “It’s ironic that Vanderbilt changed its policy one day after denying that it required the pledge” — obviously disingenuous.  We didn’t do it, Vanderbilt says, and we won’t do it again.

In many respects, pro-life forces are winning the battle for the hearts and minds of Americans. Even pro-choice advocate Frances Kissling (former president of the oxymoronically named organization Catholics for Choice) admits in a recent Washington Post op-ed that the tide has turned for life. Advances in medical technology which gives us clear pictures of the fetus, along with the continuing horrors committed by abortionists, have helped sway public opinion.

That’s all good, but as the Vanderbilt case shows, pro-abortion forces aren’t going away. This is precisely why Christians must not retreat to the sidelines on the great moral issues of the day. And it’s why we need to support organizations like the Alliance Defense Fund and join movements like the Manhattan Declaration. If you haven’t signed it, go to

If what you’ve heard today makes you want to see the church and our culture reinvigorated with biblical truth, I invite you to become a charter member of the Colson Center for Christian Worldview. Go to today to learn more.

Further Reading and Information

Vanderbilt University abandons illegal policy that forced nursing students to sign abortion pledge
Alliance Defense Fund |

Abortion rights are under attack, and pro-choice advocates are caught in a time warp
Frances Kissling | The Washington Post | February 18, 2011

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