Abortion, access to birth control at issue in dispute over denial of grant to a Catholic group

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is pictured before President Barack Obama signs an executive order directing the Food and Drug Administration to take action to reduce drug shortages in the White House Oval Office . (Charles Dharapak / AP)

Republican lawmakers oppose the Department of Health and Human Services’ decision to denying a grant against human trafficking to a Catholic group, a dispute that reflects deep divisions over access to abortion and birth control.

In late September, the HHS ended funding for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to help victims of trafficking or modern slavery. The religious group had overseen victim services nationwide since 2006, but had been denied a new grant for three other groups.

The bishops’ organization, in accordance with church teachings, had refused to refer victims of trafficking for contraceptives or abortion. HHS officials said they made the political decision to award grants to agencies that would refer women to these services.

In recent letters to HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, more than 30 Republican lawmakers said the decision was unfair to the Catholic group and could violate federal laws prohibiting discrimination based on religion. Two of the letters request internal HHS documents relating to the decision and one, sent on Monday by Representative Darrell Issa (California), said its investigative committee could issue subpoenas if the HHS does not comply.

“We are talking about a Catholic group with a superior track record that has been set aside to promote the abortion agenda,” said Representative Christopher H. Smith (NJ), who wrote the 2000 law that started the US government’s war on human trafficking. .

HHS officials said on Friday they would respond to letters from Congress but not through the media. Richard Sorian, the agency’s deputy secretary for public affairs, said the HHS is “fully convinced that the organizations best suited to provide comprehensive case management to victims of trafficking have received funding for these services.”

“The health and ability of these victims to take back control of their lives is our only concern in awarding these grants,” he said. HHS officials have previously denied any anti-Catholic bias and said that since the mid-1990s, Catholic groups have received at least $ 800 million in HHS funding to provide social services, including $ 348 million at the bishops’ conference.

The dispute is one of many disputes between the Obama administration and some Catholic groups over policy issues, including a proposed mandate by the HHS that private insurers provide free contraceptives to women.

Senior HHS officials awarded the new grants to the bishops’ competitors despite a recommendation from career staff that the Catholic group should be funded based on the scores of an independent review panel, according to federal officials and internal ministry documents.

This prompted a protest from some HHS staff, who said the process was unfair and politicized, people familiar with the process said.

Funding of $ 4.5 million was awarded to three nonprofit groups: Heartland Personal Care Services, Tapestri and the American Committee for Refugees and Immigrants.

The requests from Tapestri and the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants were rated significantly below the request from the Catholic bishops by the review committee, the sources said.

Sister Mary Ann Walsh, spokesperson for the bishops’ conference, said on Friday that she welcomed the letters from Congress. “The more we watch this, the more we worry about it,” she said. “It appears that the subsidy process has been manipulated.”

A letter to Sebelius, by Republicans Sens. Marco Rubio (Florida), Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Kelly Ayotte (NH) and signed by 24 other senators, made a similar point. “The integrity and legal administration of our federal granting process – especially with regard to the equal treatment of religious institutions – must not be compromised,” he said.

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