A Catholic group lost a bid to continue providing assistance to victims of human trafficking for what it says may be the Obama Administration’s support for abortion rights.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was awarded a five-year contract that paid it $19 million to coordinate the services during the administration of President George W. Bush.
The contract was extended briefly in March, and the group said it was informed recently that its grant request to continue the work was turned down. Starting today, three other non-profit groups will provide case-management services for victims such as helping them obtain food, clothing and access to medical care.
“We hope our religious beliefs didn’t come into play,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the Catholic Bishops in an interview. “Abortion politics will not find homes for minors being sold into sex slavery.”
The organization, which does not refer clients for abortions or provide contraceptives, has helped more than 2,700 victims of human trafficking since the group was awarded the contract in 2006, Walsh said. She said group leaders told her they don’t know why they didn’t receive a grant.
Marrianne McMullen, spokeswoman for the U.S. Health and Human Services department’s Administration for Children and Families, wouldn’t say whether abortion or contraceptive policy played a role in the awards.
“HHS’s primary focus in serving victims of human trafficking is ensuring that they have access to the high quality and comprehensive case management services they need,” she said in an e-mail. “These are individuals who have endured traumatic experiences in many cases and who face uniquely complex challenges.”
HHS’s written instructions for groups seeking grants through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act said that the agency would give “strong preference” to applicants willing to offer referrals for the “full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care,” including family planning services.
The American Civil Liberties Union said in a 2009 lawsuit that the contract with the Catholic groups was unconstitutional because the bishops group won’t coordinate or refer people for medical services such as abortion that conflict with its religious teachings.
“We applaud the federal government for recognizing that trafficking victims need reproductive-health series and making awards based on those needs,” Brigitte Amiri, an attorney for the ACLU, said in an interview. “This has little to do with religion and everything to do with what the trafficking victims need.”
The three groups received grants worth a total of about $5 million for the first year, with a possibility of two additional years. The three are Tapestri of Atlanta, Heartland Human Care Services of Chicago and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants of Washington.
It is vital for human trafficking victims to receive guidance if they’re interested in seeking abortions, Maja Hasic, Tapestri’s anti human-trafficking program director, said in an interview.
“It is solely their decision, we never push one way or another,” Hasic said.
U.S. District Court Judge Richard Stearns in Boston ruled last year that the ACLU lawsuit, filed on behalf of people who objected to religious considerations in the spending of their tax dollars, could proceed.
The bishops’ group won the contract after telling the government it “cannot be associated with an agency that performs abortions or offers contraceptives,” Stearns said in the March 2010 ruling. Oral arguments in the case are scheduled for Oct. 18 in federal court in Massachusetts, said Amiri, who will argue on behalf of the civil liberties group.