The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Northern California, and the ACLU of Southern California have sued the Federal Government for giving millions of dollars each year to organizations that restrict access to medical care on religious grounds. These organizations, such as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), are often on the front lines of providing care to unaccompanied minors who have just crossed the border into the United States and are in urgent need of medical attention. It is a federal law that these individuals receive housing, food and medical care, including access to contraception and abortion, yet religious insitutions have been exempt for providing the latter because of their beliefs.
The ACLU argues in their suit that distributing federal funds to organizations that restrict access to reproductive care for religious reasons is unconstitutional, on the grounds that it is a breach of the separation of church and state. The ACLU estimates that 60 to 80 percent of these unaccompanied women and girls have been sexually abused. Many arrive pregnant, seeking abortions for a wide variety of reasons, but have little to no access to this type of care. Indeed, documentation the ACLU obtained through the Freedom of Information Act further shows that the federal government has allowed religious institutions to kick women out of their programs for even requesting an abortion, leaving them more vulnerable to adverse health outcomes and DIY abortions that frequently lead to severe infection or death.
It may come as no surprise that conservative-leaning outlets, such as The Washington Times and Fox News, have taken a more sensationalist route over the issue, with headlines like “ACLU Sues Feds To Force Catholic Charities To Provide Abortions For Illegal Immigrants.” Indeed, a common argument for religious medical exemptions is that you have a choice: by choosing to go to a religiously-affiliated institution for medical care, you accept the religious bounds they may have in place. Basically, if you don’t like it, you can just go elsewhere. However, these women do not have the luxury of researching and picking out whichever health institution they want to go to—they go where they are sent by the state or organization who takes them in, and often end up being passed from one institution to another. ACLU of Southern California LGBTQ, Gender, and Reproductive Justice Project Director Melissa Goodman argues, “The federal government can’t abdicate its legal obligation to protect and provide reproductive health care to these vulnerable young women. Allowing religious organization to dictate the type of care that these teens, who often have fled unimaginable violence, receive is not only unlawful but also cruel.”
The ACLU interviewed several young women and told their stories about being denied basic reproductive care by religious institutions. These stories don’t just put a human face on the issue, they highlight how truly powerless these women are. They aren’t some anonymous horde of illegal immigrants demanding a Catholic bishop give them an abortion. They are humans, they are hurt, and they have no options. What if it were you?