The workshops that qualify for credit at the October 2 conference include "The Case Against Proposal 5," "The Impact of Abortion on Women’s Mental Health" and "Abortion Survivors: Not a Myth."
Abortion access has been under attack elsewhere in the country, while an effort to codify a woman's right to choose has been advancing in Vermont. Proposal 5, which Vermonters could vote on in November 2022, would amend the Vermont Constitution to state that "an individual’s right to personal reproductive autonomy is central to the liberty and dignity to determine one’s own life course."
The medical school is not organizing or sponsoring the conference, and it is not a UVM-affiliated event. But the medical school's Office of Continuing Medical and Interprofessional Education (CMIE) has approved the continuing education credits. Continuing education is a requirement for medical professionals, according to John King, a family doctor and associate dean at the medical school who oversees the CMIE office.
King said that the medical school adheres to national guidelines to determine what is or isn’t suitable for continuing education accreditation. It’s not uncommon for credit to be offered for topics that aren’t directly related to or centered around medical science, King said. He cited as examples working in teams, advocating for improvement in the health system and professional communication.
When asked about the session on Proposal 5, which will be led by a law professor, and its relevance to medical education, King replied: “I would say that we frequently have lawyers talk to us about lots things related to treatment of patients. We’re in a legalized environment.”
He went on to say: “I understand this is a very sensitive topic. We’re not in the business of endorsing any particular point of view. We would like all points of view to be presented, and it’s our job to support a diversity of beliefs and thoughts and philosophies.”
Vermont Senate president pro tempore Becca Balint (D-Windham) learned from Seven Days about the medical school’s decision to give credit for attending sessions of the Right to Life conference. Looking at the list of accredited workshops, Balint commented: “The sessions are really something.”
“The headings of the sessions give me pause about whether this is truly continuing education, when you’ve got a session called ‘The Case against Proposal 5,’” Balint said. “That’s a political discussion. That is not a discussion for medical professionals doing their job.”
“The whole push that we’ve had within the legislature to protect women’s reproductive rights is about not interfering in the relationship between a woman and her doctor,” Balint continued. “It’s an interesting thing to ponder when you’ve got these sessions here that are clearly not rooted in a relationship between a doctor and a provider. It’s about a doctor — he or she — inserting themselves into a political conversation. That makes me very uncomfortable.”
Speaking for the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Sciences at the University of Vermont Medical Center, Ira Bernstein, a physician and the department chair, said access to abortion in Vermont will not be affected if area practitioners attend the Right to Life conference.
“We have no interest or plans to change our current practice as it relates to the support of reproductive rights for women,” Bernstein wrote in an email to Seven Days. “More broadly, I do not believe that this conference will change the current support for reproductive rights in Vermont.”
Mary Hahn Beerworth, executive director of the Vermont Right to Life Committee, said that Proposal 5 will be the focus of the October conference — as well as the group's work for the next year.
She thinks it’s important that medical providers in Vermont are afforded “conscience protection,” which would protect them from participating in medical procedures they object to.
“Nurses and doctors need to know the impact of abortion on women,” Beerworth said. “They need to know how Proposal 5 will impact the state.”
Beerworth thinks that most medical professionals who attend the conference “will be pro-lifers.”
In an email to Seven Days, Eileen Sullivan, the communications director of the Vermont chapter of Planned Parenthood of Northern New England said the organization was surprised that UVM’s medical school is giving continuing education credits to conference participants.
“The Vermont Right to Life Committee is focused on banning abortion in all forms and uses inaccurate information to shame patients and health care providers,” Sullivan wrote. “It’s hard to imagine any circumstance where the messages at this conference can be considered legitimate clinical education.”
In recent years, the medical school’s Office of Continuing Medical and Interprofessional Education has given continuing education credit for attending conferences led by numerous external groups. They include the Community Health Centers of Burlington, MDI Biological Laboratory, Rady Children’s Institute for Genomic Medicine, the Vermont Department of Health, the Vermont Psychiatric Association and Women in Medicine, according to the office.