Scott Lloyd’s anti-abortion crusade began when, as a young man, he found himself faced with a partner’s unexpected pregnancy. Many years later, Lloyd would take his battle to the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Refugee Resettlement, where, as its leader since March 2017, he has personally intervened to block teenage migrants in federal custody, including at least one rape victim, from accessing abortions. But it was that summer day long ago that made him decide abortion is wrong under all circumstances, including after rape or incest or when the life of the mother is at risk. When asked about his plans for the day, he said he was going fishing; instead, he drove the young woman he had gotten pregnant to get the abortion he disagreed with. Years later, as a first-year law student at Catholic University, he described this formative experience in anguished detail in a class assignment provided to Mother Jones by a classmate and confirmed by seven others.
“The truth about abortion,” he wrote, “is that my first child is dead, and no woman, man, Supreme Court, or government—NOBODY—has the right to tell me that she doesn’t belong here.”
Today, after a career spent harnessing the law to restrict abortion access, Lloyd oversees the lives of nearly 12,000 migrants under the age of 18, most of whom were detained after crossing the border without proper papers. As their legal guardian, the Office of Refugee Resettlement is charged with housing them in federally funded shelters and providing them with health care, including reproductive services. Under both the Bush and Obama administrations, ORR routinely permitted abortions sought by undocumented teens who obtained private funding for the procedure. But after President Donald Trump appointed Lloyd to lead the agency last spring, he quickly changed this long-standing policy, requiring any teenager in ORR’s custody seeking to terminate a pregnancy to get his direct approval.
His interventions forcing young women to extend or keep their pregnancies have sparked outrage among immigrant and abortion rights activists, as well as several major lawsuits claiming he is violating detainees’ constitutional protections. Lloyd has instructed ORR shelters to send pregnant young women to religiously affiliated crisis pregnancy centers that oppose abortion and to undergo medically unnecessary ultrasounds. In one case before Lloyd was formally ORR’s director, a shelter halted a medication abortion halfway through at the agency’s request while Lloyd conferred with colleagues about deploying a scientifically unproven method to, as Lloyd recounted in a deposition on the case, “reverse” the abortion to “save the life of the baby.” (After being taken to an emergency room at the direction of Lloyd and another staffer to check for a fetal heartbeat, the girl received her second dose.) In another, he ordered that a pregnant girl otherwise ready for release be held until she received anti-abortion counseling. In yet another case, he denied a pregnant rape survivor who had threatened to hurt herself if forced to deliver, stymieing her quest for an abortion until a federal judge intervened. Lloyd personally traveled to see one young woman in ORR custody to try to dissuade her from having an abortion, and he delivered a similar message to another young woman by phone. In a 2017 deposition in an American Civil Liberties Union case challenging the new abortion policies he enacted at ORR, Lloyd acknowledged he has never approved an abortion request that crossed his desk.
“Everyone has the right to feel about abortion however they feel,” says Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom project and one of the lawyers suing Lloyd. “But where Scott Lloyd has tremendously crossed a line is by using those personal beliefs and developing a policy for all unaccompanied immigrant minors.”
In the fall of 2004, Lloyd shared a six-page essay with 80 or so classmates in his section of a course called Catholic Social Teaching. According to seven students in the course, which explored religious, ethical, and legal thinking on issues including abortion, health care, and poverty, Lloyd’s essay was an assignment shared on a list-serve ahead of group discussion. It arrived to unusual furor. “I heard everybody saying, ‘You’ve got to read what Scott wrote,'” recalled one student who, like the other classmates, declined to speak on the record.
When the students gathered in their large U-shaped classroom with stadium seating, a raucous discussion ensued. Debate unfolded in unusually personal terms, as other students shared their own experiences with abortion, shouted, and confronted Lloyd. “We often had heated discussions in class,” said one classmate, but this “was the worst.”
Ken Pennington, now an emeritus professor at Catholic University’s law school, taught the section. He confirmed the format of his 2004 class included discussing student essays circulated by email and that Lloyd had been a student that semester.
While Pennington could not recall the essay, Lloyd’s account made a stronger impression on his fellow students. “The reason I remember it so clearly,” one student who is now a private lawyer recalled, was because “it was the first time I’d ever heard somebody say, ‘I got somebody pregnant or I was pregnant, and I got an abortion.'”
In the essay, Lloyd recalled his shock and fear at learning the woman was pregnant. He described spending a sleepless week praying, seeking advice from friends, and reading the Bible. He wanted to put the baby up for adoption, and he and the woman argued when she told him she had already arranged for an abortion. The next day, Lloyd drove to pick up the woman for her appointment, still hoping to convince her otherwise. She had asked him to pay for half the procedure:
On the way there, I gave her the money, mostly in ones, for two reasons: 1) if I didn’t, I would be the enemy and she would stop listening to me and 2) because if she went through with it, I didn’t want to leave thinking it wasn’t my fault. Both were stupid reasons. In the parking lot we argued one last time.
The woman told him that he could leave, but Lloyd waited for her in the clinic lobby. Since that day, Lloyd wrote, “I’ve realized that absolutely every single reason to support an abortion is a distortion of the truth. Two steps beyond all of them is a proper investigation of the matter, and two steps back reveals the fear and selfishness behind them.” Lloyd also describes his embarrassment at later recalling this experience to a different woman who would go on to become his wife.
Lloyd argued that women who aren’t willing or able to give birth should abstain from sex: “If a woman needs to defend so fiercely the ‘one thing they can call their own—their body,’ then they shouldn’t be so careless with it as to have sex when they are not ready to be pregnant.” And he attacked Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision legalizing abortion in America, homing in on its discussion of the potential negative consequences to unwanted pregnancies.
Roe v. Wade points to the mental and financial troubles a pregnant woman faces. It doesn’t speak highly of women to assume that they can’t handle the pressures of being a mother, and that they need a procedure that is so directly opposed to femininity. Ask any of the female deans or professors at our school how much abortion was a factor in their success as a female professional. Ask them if having a child spelled mental and financial ruin. I sort of doubt that abortion was a key step on their path to success. Is abortion a choice we should endorse in an effort to make women a more successful segment of society?
While reading his essay about the experience, a number of Lloyd’s law school classmates found some of his statements offensive. “I couldn’t finish reading it in 2004,” said one classmate, “especially when I got to the point about the Holocaust.” Lloyd had written that while he knew some found comparisons to the Holocaust “distasteful,” for him, the “similarities have been crystal clear” since the day he and the woman argued about the abortion. He continued:
The Holocaust was the violent result of society assigning lesser value to a vulnerable segment of its population. Abortion is the same exact thing. One can argue that we need to protect women, or they should be allowed to do what they want for their bodies. What prevents you from saying that German society needed protection and Germany was allowed to do what they wanted with their society?
The Jews who died in the Holocaust had a chance to laugh, play, sing, dance, learn, and love each other. The victims of abortion do not, simply because people have decided this is the way it should be, not through any proper discernment of their humanity. Neither type of murder is more or less tragic, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that they are not both tragedies, and they are not both murder.
“He was equating abortion with genocide, which I found particularly offensive,” another classmate, now a corporate litigator in Washington, DC, recalled.
One student who identified herself as on “the opposite end of the spectrum from Scott, politically,” said she had been struck by Lloyd’s role in the woman’s abortion. “If you’re truly pro-life, you don’t pay for anyone’s abortion, because you don’t see yourself as being a bad guy for not paying,” she recalled. “It’s convenient.'”
Lloyd wrote that Roe v. Wade was wrongly decided and that “I don’t support abortion for any reason” including “cases of rape, incest, and danger to women.” He went on to write that women give up their rights to privacy and “bodily integrity” when they decide to have sex, and to argue that men should have more say in stopping abortions.
By making the choice to have sex, a woman is making a conscious decision to engage in an act that has the natural result of creating a pregnancy. A pregnancy implicates the rights of two other people—the baby, and the father, whether our government wants to recognize that or not. A state would not be violating any rights by recognizing and codifying the natural consequence of a person’s action, protecting a fetus’s right to life, and protecting a father’s right to be a father.
Several classmates referred to Lloyd’s essay as a “manifesto.” One was prompted to save a copy, which they recently provided to Mother Jones. “This thing was sort of unbelievable,” the classmate recalled thinking back in 2004. “He’s become this sort of crusader toward overturning a woman’s right to choose—based on his experience with getting a girl pregnant. I was like, ‘I need to have a record of this.'” A year after completing the course, the classmate forwarded a copy of the essay to a friend who had heard about it but was not in the class. That friend, today a lawyer specializing in litigation, confirmed she received the email at that time.
In October 2017, the ACLU sued Lloyd on behalf of a young woman in ORR custody in Texas who had been prevented from having an abortion, later adding other plaintiffs as they came forward. This summer, a federal trial court in Washington, DC, allowed a number of girls to sue Lloyd together and indefinitely blocked him from personally controlling the abortion decisions of young women in his care. The government has appealed both rulings; argument in the case is set for September. A second ACLU lawsuit is challenging ORR’s placement of minors in religious shelters that refuse to facilitate abortions. In both cases, the ACLU continues to argue that Lloyd is unconstitutionally violating the separation of church and state when it comes to women in his care.
Another classmate, today a lawyer in Texas, said she was reminded of the essay when she saw news stories of the lawsuit involving a girl in her state: “I saw his picture and what it was related to, and I thought, ‘I know exactly who that is,'” she said. “He’s saying this poor girl can’t do what he was allowed to do—taking the right away from someone that you were allowed to have yourself.”
Lloyd’s essay, the ACLU’s Amiri notes, adds to a body of evidence already gathered by her colleagues demonstrating Lloyd’s strong personal and religious views opposing abortion, including statements he’s made during depositions in cases over young women’s access to abortion and a memo he wrote, denying a young rape victim’s abortion request, that cited religious sources.
“If Scott Lloyd is using his personal religious opposition to influence minors’ access to abortion—by proselytizing, for example, or requiring that minors receive religious counseling—that is a clear line that’s impermissible to cross,” argues Amiri, an attorney on both cases.
While public officials can and regularly do have personal views opposing abortion, federal courts have held they must have good reason and ample evidence before restricting abortion access and that such actions must be based on “supportable evidence—things they can demonstrate to be true,” explains Leah Litman, a law professor at the University of California-Irvine who has closely followed litigation surrounding ORR’s abortion policy.
“This person took a job with the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which is not about abortion at all,” Litman says, explaining the essay and other evidence documenting his personal opposition to abortion could be used to argue he is using “his own personal experience as the basis for a policy…He seems to have this personal mission to restrict abortion in any way he can.”
Lloyd’s use of personal opinion to make a new ORR policy requiring his personal signoff before releasing minors housed in ORR’s most strict and jail-like facilities has already been criticized by federal judges in New York and Los Angeles. In the last two months, each blocked Lloyd’s policy, finding it “arbitrary,” “capricious,” and based on little more than his personal reading of news reports about immigrant minors. One judge admonished Lloyd for holding kids “hostage” to his “personal preference.”
Lloyd has claimed in depositions taken by the ACLU that he does not allow his religious beliefs to influence his decisions denying minors’ abortions as director of ORR, repeatedly saying he considers “the totality of circumstances.”
In his law school essay, Lloyd grounds his opposition to abortion in Christianity, describing abortion as a sin in the context of his Catholic faith. “What of Christ’s body did he hold back? He had a choice not to die for our sins,” Lloyd wrote. “The martyrs that built our church sacrificed their bodies to the most violent, tortuous treatment. All our Church requires is that a woman has the child growing inside of her, and you’re willing to turn your back on the Church for that?”
While the writings show Lloyd’s thinking almost 15 years ago, before he’d obtained a full legal education or work experience as an attorney, in a February 2018 deposition, he said he still believes abortion to be a “sin.” Lloyd, through an ORR spokesman, declined to comment on the essay.
His work since law school has reflected a continued commitment to the anti-abortion cause. Lloyd worked in the Bush-era Health and Human Services Department, where he helped draft “conscience” regulations allowing medical providers to opt out of care they objected to on religious grounds, including abortions. He then co-founded a pro-life law firm in Virginia and served on the board of a crisis pregnancy center before working for the Catholic Knights of Columbus and, according to his resume, helping to craft a 20-week abortion ban that’s become law in six states and been proposed in the House and Senate. He’s said as recently as this year, in depositions in the ongoing case about his ORR abortion policy, that he doesn’t believe immigrant minors have a constitutional right to abortion.
Image credits: Drew Angerer/Getty; J. Scott Applewhite/AP