In January 2008, a 16-year-old Guatemalan girl in the care of Commonwealth Catholic Charities of Richmond, Va., told staff members she was pregnant and wanted an abortion.
The girl was one of about 600 youth in the country who are part of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement’s program for unaccompanied, undocumented minors and refugee youth seeking asylum. The U.S. government contracts with private agencies to care for them until they are resettled or deported.
A major contractor for the program is the D.C.-based U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which contracts with Catholic charities in various states.
On Jan. 17, 2008, Commonwealth Catholic Charities of Richmond Executive Director Joanne Nattrass learned of the girl’s abortion, which was scheduled for the next day. Nattrass told Richmond diocese Bishop Francis DiLorenzo, who told her, “I forbid this to happen,” according to Steve Neill, editor of the diocese’s official newspaper, the Catholic Virginian.
“He found out about it at 11 at night,” says Neill. “He was told there was nothing he could do about it. She was determined to have an abortion.”
Catholic Charities staff drove the girl to the doctor’s office and one staffer signed a consent form. (Virginia law requires parental or guardian consent for minors to get an abortion.) Federal funds were not used to pay for the abortion; it is unclear how the abortion was funded.
In March, four Catholic Charities staff members were fired because of the incident. Then, on April 23, the Department of Health and Human Services sent a letter to the USCCB stating that the group had failed to comply with federal regulations by not seeking authorization for an emergency medical procedure.
“Because the information you provided to us indicates a criminal act have been committed [sic], we have referred this matter to the Office of the Inspector General for appropriate action,” the letter said.
The ACLU, which is investigating the case for constitutional rights violations, says that after the incident, USCCB leaders began pressuring Catholic Charities to prevent youth in its care from accessing abortion or even contraception.
“The Catholic Church opposes abortion, so I don’t think they should have to provide one,” says Neill. “A woman who wants to have an abortion by law is allowed to have one, but to have a Catholic agency provide the abortion would be going against their conscience.”
The ACLU says the problem lies in the murky definition of what constitutes “support” for an abortion.
“This is a particularly vulnerable population,” says Brigitte Amiri, staff attorney with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project. “The healthcare they need is time sensitive, and if they don’t speak English … they can’t just walk out the door. There has to be someone helping these kids.”
Amiri says it’s the responsibility of people contracted under the federal government to care for these minors.
In November, the ACLU filed a lawsuit in federal district court in New York demanding an answer to its Aug. 25 Freedom of Information Act request regarding the government’s policies and correspondence with the USCCB on the issue.
Many of the youth have suffered sexual assault or rape in their home country – and/or in transit to the United States, including situations that necessitate immediate reproductive health services, such as the “morning-after pill” or an abortion.
The ACLU notes that under a 1996 consent decree that resulted from the class-action lawsuit Flores v. Meese, the government is obligated to provide medical care and family planning services to undocumented immigrant youth in its care without exception. Interfering with access to contraception or abortion violates the Fifth Amendment constitutional right to privacy, the ACLU complaint states.
The federal government prohibits the use of Office of Refugee Resettlement funds for an abortion, except in cases of rape, incest or physical danger. Amiri of the ACLU says this stipulation is vague enough that it could be interpreted to prevent staff from helping a girl get an abortion.
The ACLU complaint says that state laws requiring consent for minors to have an abortion mean “every teen living in federal custody in a state where parental involvement is mandated must obtain judicial authorization for an abortion.”
Youth can seek a judicial bypass to access an abortion, but most immigrant or refugee youth – who likely don’t speak English, much less understand the judicial system – are unaware of this option.
Meanwhile, Amiri says the USCCB’s longstanding ban on facilitating access to abortion or even contraception has been reiterated and more strictly enforced nationally since the Richmond case.
In June, a nurse employed by Catholic Charities in Fort Worth, Texas, was allegedly fired for refusing to adhere to a ban against talking about condoms with participants in a program for HIV-positive people. The nurse, Barbara Beaty, is suing Catholic Charities, claiming retaliatory firing. She has said that not discussing condoms as a means of preventing HIV transmission would be medically irresponsible.
“The federal government has allowed the USCCB to prohibit access to contraception and abortion based solely on their religious beliefs,” Amiri says. “If the government has approved that scenario, we have a violation of the separation of church and state.”
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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist, author and assistant professor at Northwestern University, where she leads the investigative specialization at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Her books include Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.