HHS Grants For Labor and Sex Trafficking Victims Denied For Not Including Abortion

Rep. Darrell Issa (R.–Calif.)

The Obama administration has politicized federal grants that were designed to aid victims of labor and sex trafficking by excluding a Catholic organization that refused to include abortion and sterilization services, House Republicans said Thursday.

The new litmus test for abortion and other family planning services in the Health and Human Services (HHS) program to combat modern day slavery is part of an investigation by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“The bottom line is this: pernicious pro-abortion favoritism, embedded in this egregiously flawed process, does a grave disservice to the victims of trafficking. Victims deserve better,” said Rep. Chris Smith (R.–N.J.), who authored the legislation that oversees the grants.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) was awarded the five-year grant in 2006 for $19 million but was denied a new grant in September because of their refusal to include the controversial services that are not in keeping with the Catholic faith. Instead, two organizations that scored lower then the Catholic Bishops in the grant application process will receive the funds.

“In what can only be described as an unconscionable abuse of power, the Obama administration has engaged in what amounts to bid rigging,” Smith said.

Officials from HHS called to testify before the panel declined to specifically name Secretary Kathleen Sebelius as a participant in the decision to award the new grants.

However, Eskinder Negash, director of the department’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, said the decision to change the grant language that ultimately excluded the Catholic Bishops was made by the Office of General Counsel, “and I believe, the Office of the Secretary.”

George Sheldon, acting assistant secretary for children and families, said the grant was awarded as part of a collaborative effort with the general counsel’s office. And although he said he did not consult with Sebelius beforehand, he said he “did meet with her and inform her of the decision I made.”

Sheldon said abortion was not part of the criteria when the grants were awarded during the Bush administration, but that research shows family planning services are key to treating victims of sex trafficking.

Sheldon said the Catholic Bishops and the groups who won the grants were all acceptable, but that “ultimately it came down to exercising a preference.”

The Catholic Bishops were rejected because they refused to “provide a full array of options,” Sheldon said.

Instead, the money will go to organization that “will enable trafficking victims to re-take control of their lives by making informed health care decisions, in consultation with doctors, based on their own circumstances, values and faith,” Sheldon said.

Sheldon described the abuse suffered by the victims as horrific, and said the department is “trying to restore their freedom that has been stolen from them.” 

His answers did not satisfy committee Republicans, including Rep. Tim Walberg of Michigan.

“Forget about further victimization of the unborn,” Walberg said.

Rep. Darrell Issa (R.–Calif.), committee chairman, said his panel’s investigation has uncovered “many disturbing facts” about the grant process, including a months-long delay so the new criteria could be included. Issa also said that the judgment of experienced, career-level professionals was discarded when political appointees interfered and injected their own bias.

“These actions appear to constitute an abuse of discretion and undermine the integrity of the process, while potentially violating the spirit, if not the letter, of federal laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination based on religious beliefs,” Issa said.

Issa asked Sheldon if HHS thought they were acting within the law by denying the grant to the Catholic Bishops.

“It’s within the law to respond to the needs of this population,” Sheldon responded.

“We checked with general counsel. We believe we are in line with all statutes,” Sheldon said.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.–D.C.) said the only issue the committee should be concerned with is whether HHS followed objective procedures for awarding the grants.

“No one is entitled to a grant in the U.S., faith-based or otherwise,” Norton said.  “Public money in our country comes from people with many different backgrounds and many different views and religious views,” Norton said.

However, Rep. Mike Kelly (R.–Penn.) said the process was fixed so that the Catholic Bishops would not be awarded any of the grant money.

“That’s not right gentlemen. It’s not American. It’s actually pathetic we have to have a hearing to discuss this,” Kelly said.

Democrats have requested an additional hearing on the matter, and in a letter to Issa asked that he invite witnesses “who can discuss their experiences working with human trafficking victims and the importance of providing ‘comprehensive case management services for victims of human trafficking.’”