Health, abortion issues split Obama administration, Catholic groups
By Jerry Markon, Monday, October 31, 2011
A contentious battle between Catholic groups and the Obama administration has flared in recent days, fueled by the new health care law and ongoing divisions over access to abortion and birth control.The latest dispute centers on the Department of Health and Human Service’s decision in late September to end funding to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to help victims of human trafficking, or modern-day slavery. The church group had overseen nationwide services to victims since 2006 but was denied a new grant in favor of three other groups.The bishops organization, in line with the church’s teachings, had refused to refer trafficking victims for contraceptive or abortion services. The American Civil Liberties Union sued and HHS officials said they made a policy decision to award the grants to agencies that would refer women to those services.The bishops conference is threatening legal action and accusing the administration of anti-Catholic bias, which HHS officials deny.The fight escalates an already difficult relationship between the government and some Catholics over several issues. The bishops fiercely oppose the administration’s decision in February to no longer defend the federal law barring the recognition of same-sex marriage. Dozens of Catholic groups also have objected in recent weeks to an HHS mandate — issued under the health care law — that requires private insurers to provide women with contraceptives without co-payments or other out-of-pocket charges.In the case of the trafficking contract, senior political appointees at HHS stepped in to award the new grants to the bishops’ competitors, overriding an independent review board and career staffers who had recommended that the bishops be funded again, according to federal officials and internal HHS documents. That happened as the ACLU suit is preceding before a federal judge in Boston.The decision not to fund the bishops this time has caused controversy inside HHS. A number of career officials refused to sign documents connected to the grant, feeling that the process was unfair and politicized, individuals familiar with the matter said. Their concerns have been reported to the HHS inspector general’s office.HHS policies spell out that career officials usually oversee grant competitions and select the winners, giving priority consideration to the review board’s judgment. The policies do not prohibit political appointees from getting involved, though current and former employees said it is unusual, especially for high-level officials.“I think it’s a sad manipulation of a process to promote a pro-abortion agenda,” said Sister Mary Ann Walsh, a spokeswoman for the bishops conference. She has written on the organization’s blog that the decision reflects an HHS philosophy of “ABC (Anybody But Catholics.’’).