AmeriCorps volunteers allegedly violated federal law when they provided emotional support to people seeking abortion care, according to a government report released Tuesday.
The Office of Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that oversees AmeriCorps, a civil society and public service program, investigated allegations that volunteers working through a grantee organization provided emotional support, or doula care, to people receiving abortion care.
The findings said that the National Association of Community Health Centers (NACHC) volunteers violated the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act. The 2009 law reauthorizing the AmeriCorps program prohibits staff and members from “providing abortion services or referrals for receipt of such services.”
It’s uncertain how providing pregnant people with emotional support constitutes a violation of the law. The Supreme Court’s 1989 ruling in Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, which reviewed certain restrictions on state employees “assisting an abortion,” left in place a lower court ruling stating that transporting and escorting people seeking abortion care is not on par with participating in the procedure—the illegality specified under the Serve America Act.
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“We cannot accept the conclusion that ‘assisting’ an abortion encompasses driving or escorting the patient to the location where the procedure is to take place,” the federal appeals court ruling said. “The abortion itself does not take place in the vehicle or as the patient is being escorted. We think a more reasonable interpretation of the phrase ‘assisting an abortion’ is the one suggested by the state: direct participation in the surgical procedure itself.”
The government’s findings did not indicate whether the volunteers supported pregnant people on their own time or on AmeriCorps’ time. “Individuals may exercise their rights as private citizens and may participate in the activities listed above on their initiative, on non-AmeriCorps time, and using non-CNCS funds,” AmeriCorps’ list of prohibited activities states. “Individuals should not wear the AmeriCorps logo while doing so.”
A 2013 AmeriCorps grantee symposium presentation indicated that the Serve America Act rules are open for interpretation. “Activities that appear to be prohibited or unallowable can be questioned and disallowed,” the presentation said.
Congressional calls to take further action on the matter have already begun. The allegations against NACHC “merit an immediate termination and nonrenewal of its AmeriCorps grant,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK), who chairs an influential House Appropriations Committee panel in charge of health spending, wrote in a letter to CNCS Chief Executive Officer Wendy Spencer.
Cole called on the Obama administration to launch a nationwide investigation on community health centers’ compliance with federal law.
“I have concerns that health centers may not be complying with restrictions in the Labor-HHS spending bills,” he said in a separate letter to the inspector general’s office for the Department of Health and Human Services.
The prohibited activities in question involved one of 34 community health networks and six of the nearly 1,600 members who served during NACHC’s current grant cycle, according to an emailed statement from Samantha Jo Warfield, a CNCS spokesperson.
Still, CNCS is “deeply disappointed” by the activities, Warfield said. In response, CNCS “imposed tough and detailed reforms,” requiring NACHC to pay for an independent oversight monitor to oversee compliance and suspending the grantee’s ability to enroll new members.
The activities occurred at one of 38 sub-grantee health centers under NACHC’s Community HealthCorps purview, Chief Operating Officer Dave Taylor said in a statement. NACHC reported the activities to CNCS, leading to the investigation.
“We moved immediately to cease the activity in question, and suspended the identified site’s AmeriCorps members for a period until they and their site supervisors were retrained and revised member service contracts were reviewed and signed,” Taylor said.
“To prevent future misinterpretations, the nearly 500 AmeriCorps member service contracts were revised to include statutory language, as well as CNCS’s clarifications regarding prohibited activities,” he added. “All actively serving members, program coordinators and site supervisors were required to review and sign the revised member service contract. In addition, the sub-grantee in question was removed from NACHC’s refunding application for any subsequent cycle.”