Faith Groups Are Trying To Block Emergency Contraception For Raped Migrant Children

A 14-year-old Guatemalan migrant is left stranded in a wooded area in Mexico after the freight train she was traveling on had a minor derailment. CREDIT: REBECCA BLACKWELL/ AP
A 14-year-old Guatemalan migrant is left stranded in a wooded area in Mexico after the freight train she was traveling on had a minor derailment. CREDIT: REBECCA BLACKWELL/ AP

Estimates suggest that anywhere between 60 and 80 percent of migrant women and girls are raped on their journey as they travel across the southern United States border. But many of the organizations that provide medical care to these migrants are refusing to provide emergency contraception or make pregnancy-related referrals to girls who have been raped. What’s more, the religious organizations that operate these groups are opposing a move by the Obama administration to address epidemic rape of young unaccompanied migrants by requiring contraceptive care.

During last year’s border surge, a total of 68,541 unaccompanied children streamed through the southern Texas border from Latin America. Almost half of the children apprehended by border patrol agents were girls. Rape and sexual assault are “major motivating factors” for why girls flee their home countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, a Women’s Refugee Commission report found last October. The report stated that children on the run who traveled with smuggling guides known as coyotes reported sexual abuse, including one child who “told of how women and girls were kept in a separate room and could be heard screaming while being raped.” And even once in the United States, some migrants alleged that sexual assault (especially among LGBT detainees) took place in detention, sometimes by guards.

Those children may not receive adequate care after border patrol agents pass them onto group shelter homes, the majority of which are operated by faith-based organizations such as the Baptist Child and Family Services (BCFS), which received $190 million in a single grant last year. But it was the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), which received roughly $22.1 million, that sent a letter last week objecting to a Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) regulation by the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) that would require federally funded organizations that house unaccompanied migrant children to provide victims of sexual abuse with “unimpeded access to emergency medical treatment, crisis intervention services, emergency contraception, and sexually transmitted infections prophylaxis, in accordance with professionally accepted standards of care, where appropriate under medical or mental health professional standards.”

The rule includes a clause that would allow faith-based organizations to offer external pregnancy-related referrals for unaccompanied children. Grantees that house unaccompanied children could deny services “on religious or moral grounds,” needing only to coordinate with federal staff members who would provide the services. But a letter submitted last week even objected to a referral requirement that would “impose a duty on the conscientious objector to refer for the very item or procedure to which it has a religious or moral objection.” What’s more, the letter co-signers want the ORR to free up organizations “from any requirement to provide, facilitate the provision of, provide information about, or refer or arrange for items or procedures to which they have a religious or moral objection.” The organizations argue that they shouldn’t be denied funding over their refusal to provide or refer migrants for emergency contraception because it would substantially burden them under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which protects religious exercise. A similar argument was made by the University of Notre Dame and Little Sisters of the Poor, which both invoked religious exemption over an Obamacare form that nonprofit religious groups could fill out to accommodate a contraception mandate.


Organizations sponsoring the letter include: the USCCB; National Association of Evangelicals; World Vision, Inc.; Catholic Relief Services; and World Relief.

The Health Department has a contentious history with the USCCB and other Catholic leaders over medical practices regarding migrants. In 2011, the HHS ended its federal funding contract with USCCB over a similar controversy relating to abortion referrals for victims of trafficking, seeking instead to find applicants wiling to offer “family planning and the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.” At the time, Republican lawmakers like Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) unleashed a round of attacks against the Obama administration over its “anti-Catholic bias.” Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ) stated that the USCCB was a victim of discrimination “solely because it fundamentally respects the innate value and preciousness of an unborn child and refuses to be complicit in procuring his or her violent death by abortion.” Smith has otherwise supported anti-abortion legislation that makes exceptions in cases of rape and incest for minors. Still, ORR continues to contract with the USCCB and other faith-based organizations to provide services for unaccompanied alien children.

In its 30-page handbook issued in 2012, USCCB stated that the best practices for pregnant unaccompanied minors included “therapeutic family homes and group homes.” Abortion is not mentioned. In one instance, four Catholic Charities workers, which is a USCCB affiliate, were fired after they helped a Guatemalan migrant teenager obtain an abortion.

Primary faith-based grantees are devoted to providing services and care that few others have done on such a large scale, but the bigger fight over religious exemption likely falls flat for children and teens on the run. During a trip to Guatemala Tuesday, Dr. Jill Biden spoke with Lisbeth Paola Cholotio, a 16-year-old Maya Tzutujil from San Juan la Laguna, Sololá who stated that her country needed better resources for migrant children who are sexually exploited. Cholotio said, “We need to communicate child-to-child, not adult-to-child because if there is violence, you are told to denounce the violence but what can you do if the police ask for your father to be with you and it was your father that raped you?”

An Amnesty International report estimates that as many as six in ten migrant women and girls are raped on their journey to the United States. But as Fusion reported, “the statistics for rape and sexual assault are so fuzzy” because migrants making their way north don’t have permission to be in Mexico and reporting crime could result in deportation. Others are ashamed to admit that they’ve been raped or assaulted because sex is viewed as “currency” for women who don’t have enough money to pay for their journey to the United States. According to Fusion, “migrant shelter directors say that a staggering 80 percent of Central American women crossing Mexico to the United States are sexually assaulted.”


A coalition of 37 groups, including Planned Parenthood, Catholics for Choice, and the Center for Inquiry, wrote a letter last week asking ORR to establish protocols that would not interfere or prevent migrant children from receiving reproductive health services. They wrote, “the government is legally obligated to provide medical care, including reproductive health services, to the youth in its care, without exception. … it is imperative that ORR’s final rule ensures that access to all legally permissible medical services is actually provided — not just theoretically available — to UCs in a timely, unimpeded manner that is both respectful and non-stigmatizing.”


“The failure to ensure real access to services harms minors in ORR’s care, but also because this harm falls almost entirely upon girls who are the primary recipients of most, if not all, of the services to which some grantees may object. Allowing an organization to deny such services is discrimination and the government may not fund discrimination or provide funding to private organizations that engage in it.” the letter further stated.