Circumventing a recent court order, the Trump administration has issued new marching orders to refugee shelters around the country: Direct pregnant teens in their care to anti-abortion clinics, provide medically inaccurate information about pregnancy and promise that the federal government will “care for both you and your child.”
The ACLU is battling the federal government in court over the right of undocumented immigrant minors held at shelters overseen by the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) to access abortions. In late March, a federal judge in Washington, D.C., sided with the ACLU, temporarily stopping ORR from blocking the procedure. Beginning in mid-April, the agency was required to instruct shelters to post a notice that reaffirms the teens’ right to abortion and includes contact information for an ACLU attorney.
In response, ORR sent an email on April 20 to shelters nationwide ordering them to put up a notice next to the ACLU poster that says the agency will “provide prenatal and medical care” or help plan for adoption. Though the notice doesn’t mention abortion, it encourages pregnant teens to seek counseling at anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centers, listing three such organizations including the Sisters of Life, a group run by Catholic nuns who “vow to protect and enhance the sacredness of human life.” The email also requires the nationwide distribution of a controversial Texas anti-abortion booklet called “A Woman’s Right to Know,” which contains false claims linking abortion to breast cancer, as well as information about Texas-specific anti-abortion laws.
“The government certainly has been relentless in their attempts to find ways to force their anti-abortion beliefs on this population, and I feel like this is just another iteration of what they’ve done in the past,” said the ACLU’s Brigitte Amiri, a lead attorney on the case. The dissemination of the ORR notice and Texas booklet is “totally misleading” and “incredibly confusing to this population that is already so marginalized and isolated,” Amiri said. “Certainly I think that it undermines the preliminary injunction.”
Behind the contested federal policy is Trump appointee and ORR Director Scott Lloyd, an anti-abortion activist who’s argued that “contraceptives are the cause of abortion.” Over the last 14 months, Lloyd, who receives a weekly spreadsheet of pregnant teens in ORR custody, has personally visited minors to urge them against having an abortion, forced them to call their parents about their pregnancy and ordered them to go to religiously affiliated crisis pregnancy centers for “spiritual counseling.”
ORR is “committed to providing all unaccompanied alien children (UAC) in our care with information options that will assist them in making well-informed decisions on various matters,” spokesperson Patrick Fisher wrote in an email, regarding the Texas anti-abortion booklet. He did not immediately respond to questions about criticism that the booklet is medically inaccurate or that the ORR notice circumvents the court order.
While the judge’s decision prohibits Lloyd from physically blocking minors in custody from getting abortions, Amiri worries that the new mandated misinformation is yet another form of obstruction. She said the ACLU is currently determining its next steps.
Of particular concern for Amiri is how this is playing out at religiously affiliated shelters. One shelter in Texas has refused to post the ACLU’s notice, telling ORR that it “cannot in good conscience” do so, according to a court declaration from an agency official in late April. Amiri expects such refusals may be more widespread.
If a minor in a religiously affiliated shelter gets the ORR notice and not the ACLU notice, she won’t understand that her right to abortion is upheld by the court order, Amiri said. “When you put it all together, it just makes what the government is doing that much more problematic.”