Lessons from coverage of the Trump administration's attempt to block an undocumented teen's abortion

Lessons from coverage of the Trump administration's attempt to block an undocumented teen's abortion

Blog ››› ››› JULIE TULBERT


Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Media widely covered the case of an undocumented minor whom the Trump administration tried to stop from having an abortion this month. While Fox News focused on a made-up story that taxpayers are funding abortions of illegal immigrants, several other news outlets provided comprehensive coverage about the implications of the case, thus identifying key facets of the Trump administration’s extreme push against the right to an abortion.

On October 18, a federal judge ordered the Trump administration to allow abortion access to an undocumented teen (referred to as Jane Doe) who is being held in federal custody in Texas by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR). Lawyers for the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) had argued that the government was not impeding Doe’s access to an abortion because, as Mother Jones reported, she was “free to return to her home country for the procedure.” But the DOJ appealed the ruling to the D.C. Court of Appeals, which eventually ruled on October 24 that the government could not stop Doe from having an abortion. On October 25, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) announced that Doe had successfully obtained an abortion.

Doe was forced to jump through all of these legal hoops because, according to the ACLU, the Trump administration made a policy change in March 2017 that shelters could not take facilitate abortion access for minors in their care without “direction and approval” from the director of ORR, Scott Lloyd. The ACLU originally filed this lawsuit as a class action for all Jane Does in ORR’s custody who are seeking an abortion, and further litigation for the class is currently pending.

Before the appeals court’s October 24 ruling, Vice News’ Antonia Hylton obtained an exclusive interview with Doe in which she emphasized her certainty about the decision to have an abortion.

Beyond Vice News' interview, several media outlets highlighted crucial details of Doe’s case that will likely shape the course of abortion access as the Trump administration’s policies continue to follow an increasingly extreme trajectory. Here are four important points that media made about the case:

HHS employs an anti-abortion extremist to look after undocumented minors

Trump’s HHS is full of anti-abortion extremists like Charmaine Yoest, Teresa Manning, and Valerie Huber. But Doe’s case exposed another anti-abortion personality in the agency -- one who has direct control over the lives of pregnant minors in custody who may seek an abortion.

During the October 20 edition of MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show, Rachel Maddow detailed the ways Scott Lloyd, the director of ORR, is pushing his anti-abortion agenda onto undocumented minors. According to Maddow, Lloyd “has argued forcefully” that anti-choice groups should not just focus on making abortion illegal in the U.S., but also on opposing the use of contraceptives. Maddow additionally pointed to allegations in Doe’s lawsuit that Lloyd “directed employees underneath him in his agency to tell girls’ parents about their pregnancies against the girls’ will" and that he had "directed federal employees to physically take girls to Christian counseling centers in Texas, so anti-abortion activists at those counseling centers could try to talk them out of having abortions.” Maddow concluded that Doe’s access to a doctor was “being blocked by an anti-abortion activist who somehow got this job that gave him the kind of personal individual control over women’s lives and bodies that he previously could have only dreamed about as an anti-abortion activist.”

As Univision News’ Fernando Peinado further explained, Lloyd’s appointment to ORR “surprised many immigration activists and lawyers” since he has “little experience in immigration.” Peinado stated that Lloyd’s previous experience with refugees “was during his work as chief policy coordinator for the Knights of Columbus” -- a self-identified pro-life group that is popular with right-wing media -- where Lloyd worked with “Christian refugees and other minorities persecuted by the Islamic State in the Middle East.”

BuzzFeed News’ Ema O’Connor linked Lloyd’s current actions with previous writings in which he said that access to contraceptives increases abortion rates; in reality, the opposite is true. Lloyd declared in an article for the National Catholic Register that “American people make a deal with women: So long as you are using the condom, pill or patch I am providing with my money, you are going to promise not to have an abortion if the contraception fails, which it often does.” Lloyd also rejected the idea of funding from the Title X family planning program supporting access to contraceptives because he argued that the “truckloads of condoms” purchased would fail and lead to more abortions.

The immigration system in the US is “a harbinger of ... ‘anti-choice fanaticism’”

Rewire immigration reporter Tina Vasquez reported that the anti-abortion agenda being promoted via the United States' immigration system didn’t start with the Trump administration; in fact, anti-abortion policies of the George W. Bush administration contributed to HHS’ current ability to deny abortion access to undocumented minors. Vasquez talked to Susan Hays, the legal director of a nonprofit called Jane’s Due Process that provides legal services in Texas to pregnant minors. Hays stated:

Under Bush, social workers working with minors [in ORR shelters] could make legal decisions because the shelters had legal custody of the minors. But after two social workers helped an unaccompanied immigrant minor obtain an abortion, it really upset the Catholic-run shelter where they were employed and where the child was housed. … In response, Bush changed who has custody of minors.

The change gave ORR legal custody of unaccompanied minors who cross the border. In March 2017, the Trump administration tweaked this policy to require minors to get the specific consent of the ORR director, leaving them subject to Lloyd’s rabid anti-abortion agenda. Vasquez noted that advocates say Doe’s case is a “harbinger of the ‘anti-choice fanaticism’ working its way into the immigration system since Trump’s presidential inauguration.”

The Trump administration is using religion to deny people the right to an abortion

The Trump administration recently made a sweeping change to the federal contraception mandate that enabled practically any business to claim either a religious or moral exception to providing contraceptives to its employees. Such actions suggest that the Trump administration will place the objectives of religious groups above the choices -- and constitutional rights -- of Americans.

As Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick explained, the government’s obstruction of Doe’s planned abortion happened “because the federal government now believes it has a right to promulgate its own quasi-religious viewpoint” and to change “the law to subordinate [Doe’s] choices to government power.”

According to Lithwick, lawyers for the DOJ relied on “a very sweeping view of facilitation” in their argument that they shouldn’t have to “facilitate” the abortion by saying they would be required to offer her post-procedure medical support -- the most elementary of obligations for a government to perform. Lithwick likens the argument to “claims we’ve been hearing in courts from religious objectors for years.” These religious objectors include the plaintiffs in Hobby Lobby, who did not want to “facilitate” the coverage of birth control for their employees, or those arguing against federal funding for Planned Parenthood because of the inaccurate claim that “money is fungible” and thus taxpayers will be paying for abortions.

The Trump administration’s use of religion to delay an abortion for Jane Doe caused her unnecessary anguish. As The Daily Beast’s Erin Gloria Ryan reported, “By delaying her abortion, they subjected her to increased medical risks, dramatically increased costs, and the general physical discomfort of pregnancy for much longer than necessary. The mechanisms behind this fight are nothing but cruel.”

This case is a “preview” of the Trump administration’s efforts to undermine the abortion rights of the most vulnerable

Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern used Doe’s case to explain the reality of a future without Roe v. Wade, which then-candidate Trump promised on the campaign trail he would try to overturn. Stern wrote, “If Roe goes, there will be thousands more Jane Does—detained women who would be denied access to abortion by their government. It is these detainees, then, who are on the front line of the abortion battle. That’s because it is their pregnancies that the state can most easily control.”

Stern also highlighted the impact such precedent would have on another vulnerable community in the United States -- the incarcerated -- who are already sometimes denied abortions in federal and state prisons. As Stern explained, the process for getting a court order to have an abortion for someone in prison “is onerous and time-consuming, and officials can drag it out until the pregnancy is viable, rendering an abortion illegal.” Post-Roe, “without a constitutional right to abortion, all women in custody could be forced to carry pregnancies they do not want—then have their children taken away from them while they serve out their sentences or face deportation.”

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