Health and abortion issues divide the Obama administration and Catholic groups

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A controversial battle between Catholic groups and the Obama administration has erupted in recent days, fueled by the new healthcare law and ongoing divisions over access to abortion and birth control.

The latest dispute is over a decision by the Department of Health and Human Services in late September to end funding for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to help victims of human trafficking or modern slavery. The religious group had overseen national victim services since 2006, but was denied a new grant in favor of three other groups.

The bishops’ organization, in accordance with church teachings, had refused to refer victims of trafficking for contraceptives or abortion. The American Civil Liberties Union for follow-up, and HHS officials said they had made the political decision to award grants to agencies that would refer women to these services.

The bishops’ conference is threatening legal action and accusing the administration of anti-Catholic bias, which HHS officials deny.

The struggle further deteriorates an already difficult relationship between the government and some Catholics on several issues. The bishops fiercely oppose the administration’s decision in February to no longer defend federal law prohibiting recognition of same-sex marriage. Dozens of Catholic groups have also opposed in recent weeks a draft HHS mandate – released under the Health Care Act – that would require private insurers to provide women with contraceptives at no cost.

Kathleen Sebelius Health and Human Services Secretary. (Charles Dharapak / AP)

On the trafficking contract, senior HHS politicians awarded the new grants to bishops’ competitors despite a recommendation from career staff that bishops should be funded based on the scores of an independent review committee , according to federal officials and internal HHS documents.

This prompted a protest from some HHS staff, who said the process was unfair and politicized, people familiar with the matter said. Their concerns were reported to the HHS Inspector General’s office.

Under HHS policies, career managers generally oversee grant competitions and priority is given to the judgment of the review board. Politics do not prohibit political candidates from getting involved. “I think this is a sad manipulation of a process to promote a pro-abortion agenda,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, conference spokesperson. She wrote on the organization’s blog that the decision reflects an HHS philosophy of “ABC (anyone except Catholics)”.

HHS denies prejudice

HHS officials denied any bias and pointed out that Catholic groups have received at least $ 800 million in HHS funding to provide social services since the mid-1990s, including $ 348 million for the bishops’ conference . One of those grants, $ 19 million to help foreign refugees in America, was awarded to the bishops three days after the anti-trafficking contract expired on October 10.

“There was no intention of going out and targeting anyone,” said George sheldon, Acting Assistant Secretary for HHS Administration for children and families. “No one owns a contract”. He added that the agency “followed standard procedure”.

The HHS had said at least four grants would be given to victims of trafficking, but Sheldon said he had decided the $ 4.5 million would be shared among three nonprofit groups: Heartland Personal Care Services, Tapestri and the American Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

The nominations of Tapestri and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants were scored significantly below the nominations of Catholic bishops by the review committee, people familiar with the matter said.

“I don’t think there was any undue influence to make this grant go one way or the other,” Sheldon said. “Ultimately, I felt it was my responsibility – and I’m not trying to get out of the way here – to do what I thought was in the best interests of these victims.”

Dispute marks final chapter for HHS secretary Kathleen sebeliuscomplicated relationship with the church. Raised a Catholic in Ohio, she was fiercely criticized by Catholics and other groups when she was governor of Kansas for having vetoed bills that would have placed new restrictions on claimants. abortion. At one point, the Archbishop of Kansas City asked him to stop taking Communion.

On August 1, the HHS released a proposed mandate that would require insurers to provide contraceptives and other preventive health services to women in employee coverage, a move hailed by Democrats and women’s groups but to which the Catholic groups and the social conservatives are opposed. Catholics argue that a proposed exemption for some religious employers is far too narrow.

A dispute over abortion

The trafficking contract aimed to provide housing, counseling and other services to victims of trafficking detained at their workplace by force or fraud. It was first awarded in 2006, after a controversial decision by the George W. Bush administration to direct more federal social service contracts to faith-based groups. The contract ultimately provided Catholic bishops with more than $ 19 million to oversee these services.

At the time, several members of the federal review panel evaluating the bidders expressed concerns that the Catholic group would not refer victims to abortions or contraceptives, according to the trial documents of the ACLU. The documents indicated that the council still ranked the Catholic group well above other candidates.

The ACLU, in the lawsuit it filed in Boston U.S. District Court in 2009, argued that many women are raped by their traffickers and do not speak English, making it difficult for them to find legal services. reproduction without assistance.

Although the bishops’ organization does not directly refer women, it allowed contractors to organize services, but refused to reimburse contractors with federal dollars.

“The principle of the teaching of the church is that all sexual relations be open to life,” said Walsh, of the bishops’ conference. “This is not a minor issue; it’s intrinsic to our Catholic beliefs. ”

The ACLU lawsuit argued that the HHS allowed the Catholic group to impose its beliefs. But in defending the contract on behalf of the HHS, attorneys for the Department of Justice argued that the contract was constitutional and that the bishops had “been successful in increasing aid to victims of human trafficking.”

This spring, as the contract neared its expiration, HHS appointees got involved in the redesign of the RFP, adding a “strong preference” for applicants offering family planning and family planning referrals. complete “of” gynecological and obstetrical care “. This would include abortions and birth control; federal funds cannot be used for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother’s life.

“When important and priority issues arise, it is common for senior policy advisers in the ministry to have a dialogue . . . to come to the best policy decision, ” said Sharon Parrott, a Sebelius collaborator closely involved in the process. “The priority in this case was how best to meet the needs of victims of trafficking so that they can take control of their own lives.”

The language of “strong preference” is now at the heart of the dispute. Sheldon, the deputy secretary of HHS, said he was instrumental in the selection of new beneficiaries and that “it is very important that these victims, who have suffered trauma . . . receive the full range of information. ”

The bishops’ conference says the language has essentially stacked the game against the group and violated federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on religion. “It was a political decision,” Walsh said.


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