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BOSTON – The American Civil Liberties Union today asked a federal court to require the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to ensure that funds distributed through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act are not being used to impose religiously based restrictions on reproductive health services. Since 2006, HHS has allowed the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to limit, based on its religious beliefs, the types of services trafficking victims receive with taxpayer dollars.
"Human trafficking is basically a form of modern-day slavery," said Brigitte Amiri, staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. "There are many organizations that are deeply committed to assisting trafficking victims; our government should ensure that these organizations can provide the full range of needed services, including reproductive health care."
Through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the federal government distributes funds to cover an array of services needed by the more than 14,000 individuals, predominantly women, who are brought into the United States annually and exploited for their labor, including in the commercial sex industry. Many trafficking victims experience extreme violence and sexual assault at the hands of their traffickers. Some become pregnant as a result of rape and some contract sexually transmitted infections, including HIV, according to today's legal papers.
"For more than two years, the Bush administration has sanctioned the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' blatant misuse of taxpayer dollars," said Daniel Mach, Director of Litigation for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "It has allowed USCCB to impose its religious beliefs on trafficking victims by prohibiting sub grantees from ensuring access to services like emergency contraception, condoms, and abortion care."
Since April 2006, HHS, which administers funds allocated by the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act, has awarded USCCB grants ranging from $2.5 million to $3.5 million annually to support organizations that provide direct services to trafficking victims. As part of its sub granting program, USCCB prohibits, based on its religious beliefs, grantees from using federal funds to provide or refer for contraceptive or abortion services. USCCB sub grants to service organizations throughout the country, including to providers in Massachusetts.
"We are asking the court to stop this misuse of taxpayer dollars and to protect the health and safety of trafficking victims," said Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney with the ACLU of Massachusetts. "Trafficking victims need comprehensive and compassionate care to gain their freedom and lead safe and healthy lives."
The case is ACLU of Massachusetts v. Leavitt (Civ. No. 09-10038), filed in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts. Lawyers on the case include Amiri with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project; Mach and Heather Weaver with the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief; Rose A. Saxe with the ACLU AIDS Project; and Wunsch with the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Today's complaint is available at: www.aclu.org/reproductiverights/gen/38289lgl20090112.html