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The War on Women: Sex-Trafficking Edition

How far are the Catholic bishops willing to go with their crackdown on reproductive health? Just ask a teenage girl forced into prostitution.

Until 2007, Burke was director of the anti-trafficking program at Safe Horizon, a nonprofit in New York. She says that at one point after the bishops took over, her group submitted an invoice for a gynecological exam that a victim had received at Planned Parenthood. USCCB denied payment, she says, without even inquiring about what the visit was for.

That makes sense to Wagner, who affirms that payment for a visit to Planned Parenthood would be "totally inappropriate."

By 2009 the bishops' restrictions prompted the ACLU to sue the Department of Health and Human Services*, alleging that it was unconstitutionally forcing recipients of federal money to comply with Catholic beliefs. The bishops were allowed to join the lawsuit on the side of the government, and they had motivation to do so: According to USCCB's 2010 financial report, the organization took in revenues totaling $221 million—including about $70 million worth of federal funding for various social service programs. While the trafficking contract was relatively small, the ACLU lawsuit threatened a far greater sum.

28% of US women who obtained abortions in 2008 were Catholic—the same rate as among all US women.

USCCB's testimony in the case—which is still ongoing—was revealing: It argued that reproductive health services simply weren't important. In one filing, lawyers wrote, "USCCB disputes as a matter of principle that abortion and contraception are 'medical services' that any person 'needs.'"

But in many parts of the country, the millions administered through the bishops may have been the only source of funds for trafficking survivors' reproductive health care, according to Susie Baldwin, a physician and public health expert in Los Angeles. In testimony prepared for a congressional hearing, Baldwin told the story of Celia, the teenager brought to an LA clinic in which she worked. Celia had been beaten and raped numerous times during her three months of captivity—and she was pregnant by the time she was brought to Baldwin's clinic. Having an abortion, Baldwin testified, "improved her ability to recover from the trauma she had experienced."

Hilary Chester, the associate director of the anti-trafficking program at USCCB, says the group is all in favor of reproductive health care. "It's clear in our staff manual that reproductive health services are very important," she says, referring to gynecological exams and screening for sexually transmitted diseases. "That is a big misconception that we didn't talk about anything below the waist."

Chester notes that subcontractors in some cases had other funds they could use and that "it was not our policy to monitor the services they provided" through those funds. "I feel like there's a misconception that it was somehow bishops in Washington, DC, making decisions about client care. But social workers ran this program. It's not old men who are celibate making these kinds of decisions."

The battle over Catholics and birth control has continued apace: In March, USCCB president Cardinal Timothy Dolan urged greater political activism among the flock. "It is a freedom of religion battle," he said during a speech in New York.

Wagner says the Obama administration is not only anti-Catholic but also anti-religious in general. The move to end the bishops' human trafficking contract is part of "an incremental strategy," in his view. "I don't think it bodes well for faith-based organizations."

65% of Catholic voters agree that federally funded hospitals and clinics should not be allowed to refuse procedures or medications based on religious beliefs.

"No one is entitled to government money," counters Frances Kissling, the former president of Catholics for a Free Choice. "You apply for a grant, and the money goes to the agency judged to be the best provider of the services. If you are not the best provider or can't provide the services, you can't get the grant. That doesn't mean that you were discriminated against."

In fact, the numbers suggest that the Obama administration has been quite generous toward Catholic groups. According to the administration, $673 million in federal grants went to Catholic-affiliated organizations between 2009 and 2012—compared with $549 million in the prior three years.

So much money has flowed to these groups, it has rankled civil libertarians who opposed the expansion of faith-based contracting under Bush. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, says that despite promises to do otherwise, Obama has left most of his predecessor's faith-based infrastructure in place. "I would like to think that the Obama administration, whatever people think of them, would have learned by now that if you give 80 percent of a loaf to certain groups, they will take the 80 percent and then accuse you of being a miser anyway," Lynn says.

How the battle over the funding will ultimately impact sex trafficking victims is hard to know—it remains unclear how many such victims even exist. The 1999 testimony warning of 50,000 women and children being trafficked to the United States each year turned out to be wildly overstated: The State Department official had cited a CIA study that had reportedly extrapolated the number from foreign newspaper clippings. A revised State Department estimate in 2004—now including men—put the maximum number at 17,500. But after the Government Accountability Office (PDF) raised doubts about it, State stopped citing even that figure.

Experts say the numbers are very difficult to nail down, in part because the traumatized victims are unlikely to report the crime. "We have yet to find a criminal syndicate out there with thousands of cases," Wagner admits. "I'm sure they're out there."

The bishops report that since 2006, they have served a total of 610 people who were brought to the United States for forced prostitution. They have served a total of 2,735 people, the majority of whom were labor trafficking victims brought in to be domestic servants, work in factories, or harvest crops in agricultural fields. These victims, too, are covered by the anti-trafficking law—they can get services, and in some cases special immigration visas allowing them to work legally.

82% of 66 advisers tapped by the Vatican voted in the mid-1960s to lift a church ban on birth control. But under pressure from three dissenting bishops, Pope Paul VI reaffirmed the ban in 1968.

But support for trafficking victims could be jeopardized if Smith has his way. Rankled over the termination of the bishops' contract, the congressman now aims to take the entire trafficking program away from Health and Human Services and transfer it to the Justice Department. Advocates for trafficking victims warn against such a move: "Justice is supposed to prosecute the bad guys," says Ron Soodalter, a historian who studies trafficking. "What are they going to do to assign benefits to victims?"

Smith's office did not return calls seeking comment, but his new bill clearly reflects his strategy: It contains language that would ban religious "discrimination" in the contracting process and give a jilted applicant the right to sue over alleged religious bias. The bill now has 15 cosponsors and is working its way through committee.

The bishops and their political allies appear to remain focused on stoking partisan fervor. "If the economy continues to strengthen, this fake war on religion might be one of the things Republicans keep hammering on," says Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at the progressive advocacy group People for the American Way. "But I don't think it's going to be any kind of magic bullet to get Catholic voters."

Update: On March 23, 2012, Judge Richard G. Stearns ruled in favor of the ACLU, noting: "No one is arguing that the USCCB can be mandated by government to provide abortion or contraceptive services or be discriminated against for its refusal to do so. Rather, this case is about the limits of the government’s ability to delegate to a religious institution the right to use taxpayer money to impose its beliefs on others (who may or may not share them)."

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