Illustration by Steve BrodnerLast December, at a contentious hearing of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, a group consisting almost entirely of men weighed in on women's health care. Millions of federal dollars were at stake. Two Obama officials were facing an inquisition. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.)—who wasn't even a member of the committee but was invited by chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) to speak—was red-faced and practically shouting as he delivered his opening remarks: "The Obama administration's bias against Catholics is an affront to religious freedom and a threat to all people," he inveighed.
Smith's attack was rooted in a now-familiar dispute—the escalating war between conservatives and the Obama administration over reproductive health. But there was a special wrinkle: Smith was concerned with foreigners forced into prostitution in the United States—and the right of the Catholic Church to refuse to provide them with access to birth control and abortion.
Thanks to legislation authored by Smith, the federal government spends millions of dollars each year to help human trafficking victims recover. Since 2006 virtually all of the money has gone to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the church's leadership in Washington. But in September the Obama administration declined to renew the contract. It wanted to ensure that victimized women had access to full reproductive health care, and the bishops had forbidden the grant money to be used for services they deemed immoral.
Ever since, Smith and other USCCB supporters have been denouncing Obama, accusing him of an unconscionable attack on religious freedom. The House committee spent three hours grilling the Obama officials, pressing them on whether an anti-Catholic bias was at work inside the White House. A far more public blowup came a few weeks later, when the administration required Catholic-affiliated institutions like hospitals and universities to provide contraceptive benefits to employees. The president would ultimately engineer a compromise, shifting the payment responsibility to insurance companies, but even that did nothing to quell the outcry.
Allegations that Obama is anti-Catholic promise to escalate as Republicans seek to win key Catholic voting blocs in states such as Florida and Ohio. But warring over women's reproductive health may be risky: National surveys show that the majority of women, including among Catholics, agree with Obama's policies on birth control and are turned off by Republicans' emphasis on the issue. Meanwhile, in the trafficking fight, Republican tactics could end up hurting the very victims that politicians like Smith claim to be fighting for: people like "Celia," a teenager who was beaten, raped, and impregnated before being rescued in 2006 by law enforcement officials who broke up a sex trafficking ring in California.
The bishops' protestations are no coincidence, but rather fit with a strategic battle dating back more than a decade. In 1998 the Catholic magazine Crisis observed that America's 50 million Catholics had emerged as the "Holy Grail of coalition politics." For decades, Catholics had been reliable Democrats, but as that began to change, the magazine commissioned pollster Steven Wagner, who'd helped craft the GOP's 1994 Contract With America, to undertake a study of Catholic voters. The results indicated that Catholics who didn't spend much time in the pews remained largely Democratic. But conservatives, Wagner argued, were missing an opportunity to tap into a pool of swing voters: active Catholics who go to Mass at least once a week and whose views were starting to align with those of evangelical Christians.
98% of Catholic women between the ages of 15 and 44 who have had sex used birth control.
The Crisis editor who'd commissioned the poll, Deal Hudson, led an outreach effort for George W. Bush's presidential campaign; Bush sought wider support from religious voters in part by pledging to knock down barriers to faith-based organizations getting federal contracts. Hudson's reward was to helm the first-ever Catholic advisory committee to the White House. (He stepped down in 2004 from Bush's reelection campaign in the wake of news that he'd "surrendered his tenure" as professor at Fordham University after a student accused him of sexual harassment.) Meanwhile, in 2003 pollster Wagner went to work leading the recently established human trafficking office within the Department of Health and Human Services despite having little relevant experience. "I actually at that time had never heard of human trafficking," he acknowledged in an interview at his office on Capitol Hill, where he now works as a political consultant.
The federal program to help trafficking victims owes its existence to the advocacy of an unusual coalition of evangelical, feminist, and human rights groups in the 1990s. By 1999 they persuaded Congress to hold hearings, in which sex trafficking victims from Nepal, Russia, and Mexico told horrific stories and a State Department official testified that as many as 50,000 women and children were trafficked to America every year.
Rep. Smith and his colleagues responded with legislation that would be endorsed by everyone from Gloria Steinem to the National Association of Evangelicals. It pumped millions of dollars into victim services, prevention, and law enforcement efforts to prosecute ringleaders. But when Wagner took charge of the trafficking office, he discovered that the effort was proving something of a bust: Law enforcement had trouble finding traffickers inside the country to prosecute, and the government was giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to an array of nonprofit groups serving few, if any, victims.
63% of Catholic voters think insurance policies—whether private or government—should cover birth control.
Wagner concluded that nonprofits should get funds only if they actually served victims. He advocated an approach used by the bishops, who were already getting federal funding and doling it out to subcontractors on a per capita basis to help trafficking victims. After a bidding process in which USCCB was one of two organizations vying for the money, it ended up with all of the $19 million dedicated for trafficking victim services from 2006 through 2011.*
The bishops took about a third of the money for administrative costs. With the rest, they paid subcontractors around the country to provide services—on the church's terms. Subcontractors could not discuss contraception or abortion, or even use staff time to refer clients for such services, on the church's dime. (It is illegal to use federal money to pay for abortion except in the most extreme cases, but before the bishops took over, the funding could go toward providing abortion information and referrals.)
Some of the subcontractors, especially the secular ones, bristled at the restrictions. "We're talking about a group of people [who] have endured rape and no health care, so many of them have untreated infections," says Florrie Burke, who serves on the steering committee of the New York Anti-Trafficking Network. "Many of them have been exposed to HIV. They've had forced abortions. The gynecological issues are horrendous."
*Correction: Due to a fact-checking error, the version of this story appearing in the May/June 2012 issue of the magazine stated that USCCB was the only large organization vying for the money; the Salvation Army also participated in the bidding process.