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NATIONAL NEWS | spring 2009

Strings Attached
ACLU sues to stop Catholic bishops from restricting trafficking victims’ access to birth control and abortion

By Jessica Stites  

IN AN EFFORT TO GET VICTIMS of sex or labor trafficking back on their feet, the U.S. government provides up to $600 a month in medical care, shelter, food, psychotherapy, job training and other services. But if the women victims need contraception, reproductive counseling or abortion services? Sorry.

That’s because most federal grants to anti-trafficking organizations are doled out by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, per a 2006 contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (see “The Invisible Ones,” Summer 2007). And the bishops make subgrantees pledge not to “provide referral for abortion services or contraceptive materials.”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) is now suing the government for breaching the First Amendment with this policy. “This is an obvious transgression of the separation between church and state,” says Brigitte Amiri, the ACLU’s lead lawyer. “ The government can’t allow its grantees to impose their religious beliefs on subgrantees.”

Doing so, the suit states, is also not good practice in aiding victims of sex and labor trafficking, who are mostly women and at high risk for rape and forced pregnancy—tactics traffickers often use as means of control. “We get clients that come to us directly with reproductive health needs or concerns,” confirms one anti-trafficking organization’s director, speaking anonymously because her group relies on the bishops’ subgrants. “It’s not just happening in sex trafficking but also in labor trafficking, because unfortunately people in those situations are getting physically battered and sexually assaulted.”

In addition to the ban, leaders of anti-trafficking groups criticize the bishops’ entire grant system, which involves up to $6 million a year. The per capita structure—requiring monthly applications from anti-trafficking groups on a per-victim basis—has left the groups strapped for cash, without job security for employees and forced to handle mountains of paperwork. Moreover, the bishops are six months behind on payments: “It’s like we’re providing an interest-free loan to the government—we can’t afford that,” said the anonymous source.

“When someone arrives with only the clothes on her back, it’s going to take more than three months to get her on her feet,” says Kay Buck, director of the Los Angeles Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking (CAST-LA). “Without long-term funding, we’re just creating a homeless population.” With that funding, her group could ramp up from one outreach coordinator to an entire outreach department: “We’d be able to uncover thousands of victims,” says Buck.

The ACLU is waiting to learn whether the U.S. will fight the suit or force the bishops to lift their gag rule. Their contract with the government is up for renewal in May.

Those helping victims recover know how much they need unrestricted health care to do so. “When [trafficking victims] were enslaved, they weren’t allowed to make choices and had little control over their own bodies,” says Lisette Arsuaga, also of CAST-LA. “One of the most important things that we can offer is the ability to make choices, including reproductive-health choices.”

Pick up a copy of the Spring 2009 issue of Ms. on newsstands, or have a copy sent to your door by joining the Ms. community at www.msmagazine.com.