It has not been a hallmark couple of months for the Catholic church. First, the uptick in happily married same-sex couples Washington, D.C., failed to call forth even one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Then, there was that big gay prostitution ring being run out of the Vatican. And now, a court in Massachusetts has declared that the ACLU can sue the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops for refusing to provide the human trafficking victims they serve with reproductive health care, including access to contraception and abortion services. Apparently, discrimination is just not in vogue right now.
Here’s the back story on the lawsuit. Throughout George W. Bush’s presidency, the U.S. Conference on Catholic Bishops (USCCB) got most of the federal money available to organizations to provide aftercare services, like counseling, education support, and housing, to people trafficked into the U.S. from overseas. USCCB has been, for the most part, a very competent service provider, has developed great programs for trafficking survivors across the country, and were able to meet most of the needs of most of the (primarily) women they served. Being a Catholic organization, however, there was one big gap: reproductive health care. USCCB, funded with taxpayer dollars, wasn’t giving survivors access to contraception — even condoms for HIV-infected survivors — or abortion services. So about 30 seconds after Obama took the oath of office, the ACLU filed a lawsuit telling both the government and USCCB that those limits weren’t gonna fly.
Since the beginning of 2009, the courts have been trying to determine whether the suit can more forward. It was brought on behalf of Massachusetts taxpayers who didn’t want their money being used for “religious activities.” USCCB, however, claimed the only person who could sue them was a trafficking survivor who felt she had been denied reproductive health services she wanted or needed. Yesterday, however, a court in Massachusetts decided that taxpayers can sue in this case, meaning both groups are facing a long legal battle ahead of them.
USCCB has claimed from the beginning that it is absolutely within their rights as a religious organization to refuse to provide medical services they deem immoral or against their religion. But the ACLU points out that since they get the overwhelming portion of federal dollars to take care of trafficked people, women who want access to birth control or abortions may not have anywhere else to go. As usual, however, the debate over abortion misses the much larger point that women trafficked into commercial sex industries often have very serious sexual and reproductive health needs, and the vast majority of them are not abortion. They can have vaginal trauma, scarring, infections in their reproductive systems, and sexual problems. Even something as simple as getting condoms into the hands of survivors may help them prevent the spread of HIV and STDs to others and protect them from becoming infected. Both sides may be yelling the word “abortion” as loud as they can, but there is much, much more at stake than abortion.
While I fully support giving trafficked women all the medical care they need to recover from their experience, I wonder if this lawsuit is going to do more harm than good. It will involve organizations which serve trafficking victims spending lots of time and money on legal fees which could be spent on people. If USCCB is told they must provide reproductive health care, then trafficking survivors will lose a competent, experienced service provider and have their recovery process disrupted as they’re shuffled around. If USCCB can carry on, then women in need of health care might not get it, resulting in more trauma in their lives. If I’m a woman trying to rebuild my life after trafficking, no version of the future is looking bright and rosy.
Sadly, no matter who wins this lawsuit, I think there will be a number of human trafficking survivors who will lose.
Photo credit: Mike Benezetti