The Obama administration is under fire for rejecting the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ request for a grant to help victims of sex trafficking, because it doesn’t provide full gynecological services such as family planning, contraception and abortion.
HHS higher-ups dismissed a recommendation from its reviewers that the USCCB be awarded the $2.5 million it requested, because the Catholic Bishops weren’t willing to provide some family planning services to trafficking victims.
“We believed it necessary that the one federally funded social service organization in charge of implementing and overseeing case management in any area is willing to provide the full scope of services that trafficking victims can learn about through the program,” George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary, said in a heated hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee today.
“I believe we need to provide them [victims] a full array of services so they have a fighting chance,” Sheldon said when grilled by Republican House members of HHS’s decision, which he insisted was “within the law to respond to the needs of this population.”
The Trafficking Victim Services Grant Awards provides funding for social services for trafficking victims, such as food and shelter, not funds for abortion or family planning services.
But abortion became an issue when HHS officials added a clause this year about giving strong preference to applicants that provide victims with comprehensive case management services. That would include information on, and referrals to, “family planning services and the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.”
USCCB – which got the second highest rating from an independent review panel – received the same five-year grant in 2006. But it was rejected this time around because it would not add any language that would pave the way for abortion. Another difference was that HHS changed the funding from a contract to a competitive grant. USCCB was the only organization that received such funding in 2006.
“The USCCB is not going to do anything or work for anything that violates church teachings,” spokeswoman Mary Ann Walsh told ABC News.
The group accused HHS of singling it out.
“The discrimination against the USCCB couldn’t be more obvious,” Walsh said. “There’s also the concern for the real needs of victims of sex trafficking coming in second to promoting views on abortion and sterilization.”
Congressional Republicans echoed that sentiment, charging that HHS’s decision was politically and ideologically motivated.
“If we were to have a litmus test that Catholics need not apply… we need to say so and we need to quantify it in the law and stand the scrutiny of the Supreme Court,” said committee chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif.
Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., who wrote the bill that made these grants possible, blasted the Obama administration for “an unconscionable abuse of power” and “pro abortion favoritism.”
But Democrats dismissed Republicans’ comments as false and a “libel,” pointing to the millions of dollars in grants Catholic groups have received from HHS.
Since 2006, USCCB has received more than $2.5 million annually in grants from HHS. More than $650 million has gone from HHS to Catholic groups — primarily Catholic charities and USCCB — in the last three years. This is $100 million more than what went to Catholic groups in the last three years of the Bush administration.
“This is really an issue about whether victims will get the full range of services,” said Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass.
Sheldon would not say whether the clause was added as a result of a lawsuit by the liberal American Civil Liberties Union.
In 2009, ACLU took the agency and Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to federal court to ensure that it doesn’t grant money to organizations like USCCB that “impose religiously based restrictions on reproductive health services.”
“After being physically and emotionally brutalized by traffickers, they [victims] deserve not to have other people’s religious values imposed on them, and to be able to determine what is in their best interest when it comes to their own health care needs,” Sarah Lipton-Lubet, policy counsel for ACLU, said in a statement. “Today’s hearing was a political show-trial bought and paid for by the powerful lobbyists at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops exerting their influence over certain members of Congress.”