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The Obama Administration Is Allowing Religious Organizations to Restrict Health Care for the Most Vulnerable, but We Just Won the First Round

Woman looking depressed
Woman looking depressed
Brigitte Amiri,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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December 5, 2016

When she was 17 years old, Rosa* fled her home country and came to the U.S. seeking a better life. As she made her way across the border, she was raped. After she arrived in the U.S. alone, she was taken into federal custody and then placed with a Catholic organization that receives taxpayer money to provide services to young women like Rosa.

Already afraid and alone, Rosa learned she was pregnant, adding to her trauma. She requested an abortion. But instead of helping Rosa get the care she needed — as required by law — Catholic Charities kicked her out of its federally funded program. Rosa became so distraught by the prospect of not being able to obtain an abortion that she was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts.

Her story doesn’t end there. The Obama administration tried to place Rosa with another religiously affiliated organization that also receives federal tax dollars to run a program for young people like Rosa. But again, the organization refused to accept Rosa because they disapproved of this young woman’s decision to end her pregnancy.

Rosa is not alone.

Our investigation into the treatment of unaccompanied immigrant minors revealed heartbreaking story after heartbreaking story of teens who experienced the most horrific conditions imaginable, only to be punted around like a political football because they sought abortions. Every year, thousands of children and teenagers come to the U.S. without family, often fleeing abuse, violence, or torture in their home countries. Many are abused on the journey to the U.S., with the estimates of rape as high as 80 percent. After these minors are picked up by law enforcement, they are placed with a nonprofit organization that receives a federal grant — in other words, our tax dollars — to provide them with day-to-day care until they are deported, reunified with family in the U.S., or obtain asylum.

An array of organizations receives federal grants to care for these young people. Those grantees are legally obligated to act in the teen’s best interest and provide access to all routine medical care, including family planning services. But the government allows some of those grantees — including those who receive millions of dollars of federal taxpayer dollars — to impose their religious beliefs on this vulnerable population and deny them access to reproductive health care.

This is not only downright cruel, but it’s also unconstitutional. So we sued. But not until after we exhausted all options: We investigated the matter for eight years and met with the Obama administration repeatedly. Unfortunately, our requests to the Obama administration to fix the issue fell on deaf ears.

This isn’t the first time the government has allowed the bishops to restrict a vulnerable population’s access to reproductive health care, and it’s not the first time that the ACLU has taken them to task for it. In 2012, a district court in Massachusetts ruled that the government violated the guarantee of separation of church and state when it gave the bishops millions of dollars and allowed them to prohibit any funds to be used to provide trafficking victims with access to abortion or contraception, despite clear law saying that those who have survived trafficking are entitled to receive those services.

Recently, the bishops made their objection to providing unaccompanied minors with access to reproductive health crystal clear. They explicitly told the government that they would not abide by a new regulation affirming the legal requirement that grantees must ensure that these young people have access to emergency contraception and abortion in cases of rape. The bishops even go so far as saying that they should not have to provide information about contraception or abortion.

Earlier this week, a federal judge determined our lawsuit could go forward. Our case raises a basic constitutional principle: The government cannot give taxpayer dollars to a religiously affiliated entity that imposes its religious beliefs on others and denies them access to critical health care. That is true for all presidential administrations, whether the Obama administration or the incoming Trump administration. We will continue to hold those in power accountable when they blur the lines between church and state.

But what’s at stake in this case is not just an academic constitutional argument. The negligence of our government and the caregivers they entrust is especially heinous when the victims are among our most vulnerable. This case is about ensuring that teenagers like Rosa who have suffered immensely are provided with the proper care, compassion, and respect that they deserve. Anything less would be inhumane, not to mention illegal.

* “Rosa” is a pseudonym.

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