A legal battle is brewing over Catholic charities that don’t want to help young immigrants who have been raped to access abortion or contraception.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a suit Monday against the Obama administration requesting information about undocumented immigrant minors’ access to reproductive health care.
The ACLU says the government hasn’t responded for six months to its Freedom of Information Act requests for documentation about how often Catholic-run charities deny immigrant minors access to reproductive health services.
“There are lots of questions,” ACLU Senior Staff Attorney Brigitte Amiri told reporters on a press call Monday.
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Amiri said the ACLU has gotten reports of minors being forced to transfer into other programs where they know no one in order to receive abortion care. Jennifer Podkul of the Women’s Refugee Commission said she heard from one social worker who suspected a Catholic-run facility was deliberately dragging its feet in reuniting one pregnant girl with family members so her pregnancy would progress too far to have a legal abortion in the state she was in.
Advocates know this denial of care is a problem, but they don’t know how often it happens, what steps minors have to take to get the care they need, or how often they end up never getting that care at all.
A surge of children and teens over the past couple years have come across the borders fleeing violence and oppression in their home countries. Up to 80 percent of women and girls are sexually assaulted during that journey, and many are fleeing sexual violence at home.
When unaccompanied migrant children are caught, the government is solely responsible for their care until they can be reunited with relatives in the United States, or until a court decides whether they qualify for asylum. Since juveniles are detained without the freedom to leave during this time, the government is also responsible for all of their necessary medical care, including family planning.
The Office of Refugee Resettlement hires contractors, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), to house and care for these young people. The USCCB receives millions of dollars in government contracts for this purpose.
But the USCCB objected to the administration’s proposed regulations, scheduled to take effect in June, requiring contractors to provide emergency contraception and abortion care for immigrant youth who have been raped.
The regulations are a response to reports of sexual abuse in detention facilities and comply with the Prison Rape Elimination Act.
The bishops claim that the regulations violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which in the past few years has also been invoked to grant corporations religious freedom in the Hobby Lobby case and to support anti-LGBT discrimination in Indiana.
“Religious freedom is a fundamental right,” Amiri said. “But that right doesn’t include imposing your beliefs on others to harm them, which is exactly what the bishops are doing here.”
The bishops claim that their religious freedom would be unduly burdened not just by directly providing abortion or emergency contraception services to young people, but by merely providing information about services, referring young people to another provider, or even informing the government that a child in their care needs services.
“The bishops want to take millions of dollars in government contracts, but at the same time they don’t want to comply with the terms of the contract,” Amiri said.