By the time a woman arrives at the clinic, she has already thought a lot about her pregnancy and what to do next. But she still has to run a gauntlet of people questioning her, and confront their lies.
Several older women stood on the sidewalk a few feet from the entrance to Choices Women’s Medical Center in Queens, New York. They aggressively approached every woman who walked towards the door, literally getting in their faces with rosaries and anti-abortion literature in hand.
“Don’t kill your baby,” they implored, planting themselves between the woman and the clinic entrance. “We can help you.”
I had come to Choices to interview head counselor Sophia McCoy, and the first thing I asked was what she thought about the protestors.
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“I walk in past them every day. I can’t be up in arms about them all the time or I couldn’t do my job. But they really upset some of the women.”
McCoy has headed up counseling services at Choices for five years, training other counselors and, herself, talking to dozens of women each day who come to the clinic for abortions, both first and second trimester. “I discuss the abortion procedure with them,” she said, “and make sure they are sure and feel secure about their decision.”
“By the time a woman arrives at Choices,” McCoy said, “she has already thought a lot about her pregnancy and what to do next. A woman’s decision depends a lot on how well she knows her partner, relations with her family, what’s going on in her life…her age, her school, work, health. Most have tried to talk to a close friend or relative. Making that first phone call to the clinic for an appointment can be very scary. And then they get here and run into the protestors.
“Most women are very firm in their decision. They are generally confident about what they want to do with their lives and often have good support for their decision to have an abortion. It’s not easy for protestors to approach these women. I’ve seen women say, ‘get away from me,’ and walk right up to the door. But I’ve also seen women go back and forth, inside to the waiting room and outside to the protestors, sometimes for an hour. These women are generally more ambivalent to begin with, and the protestors have an easier time talking to them. Some are affected by the offers of free baby showers and financial help for diapers. But this often doesn’t last long. The protestors also tell a lot of lies.”
In fact, much of McCoy’s job is to educate women, something that she accomplishes by bringing to bear both her medical training and her own personal experience. She is on the front lines, addressing a gauntlet of lies and a vacuum of accurate information daily.
After a woman comes into the clinic and registers at the front desk, she has a sonogram and blood work. Then she sees a counselor. “If a woman expresses doubts,” McCoy said, “I try to explore her feelings with her, what the pros and cons are of having the procedure, based on who she is, and help her resolve any questions. If she feels sad, I tell her it’s okay to be sad, but the main thing is for her to be sure that this is the right thing for her to do at this time. And it has to be her decision, her choice. It’s only after I’m confident this is the case that she has the procedure.”
“The protestors tell women that we don’t care about them. They say that ambulances come and take women away once or twice a day here, that women have to have hysterectomies after an abortion, that we throw away ‘the baby’ (that’s what they call it) in the garbage afterwards. All of these are just lies. And many women don’t know how their own body functions or about the reproductive process.
“I talk to the women about all this. When a patient comes in and she’s upset, I explain to her the importance of being able to come here and what women went through before abortion was legal. I tell them, ‘Today, abortion is very safe, but it wasn’t always that way.’
“Women are not aware of the history of abortion, that women had to be driven long distances to find a doctor who would do one. Or women would get an illegal and unsafe procedure. I tell them this is why we have to fight to keep abortion legal and a woman’s right.”
The Impact of a Photo – And a Teenager’s Death
When she was about 11 or 12 growing up in Queens, McCoy heard her mother and grandmother talking at home about how difficult it had been to get an abortion before it was legal. She read about it in the pioneering women’s health care book, Our Bodies, Ourselves, and saw a photo that she could never forget. It was of a woman lying on a motel room floor who had died from an illegal abortion (now known to be a picture of Gerri Santoro.) After high school when McCoy was an accounting student, she heard about a fellow student who had tried to use a bottle to terminate her pregnancy.
“The topic just kept coming up,” McCoy recalled. “You know how you hear a lot of stories growing up, and some things jump out at you and eventually it all takes shape. Well, these stories stayed with me, and I knew I needed to be part of not letting this happen again.”
“I discovered that accounting really wasn’t for me; I wanted to work with people more. I studied forensic psychology for three years, but then I saw an advertisement for a school for medical and dental assistants and I thought, ‘maybe that’s for me.’ By that time, I was a single mother with three young children. As part of my medical assistant training, I did an internship at Choices specifically to learn about second trimester abortions. And then it happened that I needed a second trimester procedure myself. Shortly afterwards, I applied for a medical assistant job at Choices and was asked to become a counselor because I had worked in every area of the clinic and knew the procedure so well, including through my own personal experience. During my interview, the social worker showed me the exact same photo that had made such an impression on me earlier…I knew this was where I needed to be.”
Another thing that had a big impact on McCoy was the story of 17-year-old Becky Bell, who died from an illegal abortion in 1988 in Indiana, a state that required minors to get parental notification or a judge’s waiver. But word on the street was that the judge was anti-choice and hardly ever said yes. Becky couldn’t bear to “disappoint” her parents, so, it turned out, she got an illegal abortion. A few days later she ended up in a hospital where she died of a massive infection caused by whatever was done to her.
“I have three children, including a 17-year-old daughter,” McCoy said, “and when we first talked about sex, all I could think about was Becky Bell. Young people get the wrong information on the streets or from boyfriends – so I knew what I had to do…even if it meant getting her birth control at a young age. I want my daughter alive and healthy.”
“A parent’s views on sex may differ from her child’s, but I am so happy there is a place like Choices where my children can go if they need to. Teenagers, like Becky Bell, can become desperate to avoid hearing those words, ‘You disappoint me.'”
In fact, McCoy encourages her daughter’s friends to come over to her home to talk, and this has developed into a regular weekly session about what’s going on in their lives, their thoughts and feelings, including about sex, contraception and other reproductive health matters.
Getting Patients to Open Up
“I have to keep asking the patients, ‘how do you feel?'”
“What gets to me most in counseling at the clinic,” McCoy said, “is the lack of self-esteem the women have. I try to get the woman to focus back on herself, her own life, and what she wants.”
This isn’t easy. “Often,” McCoy continued, “a woman will talk about how everyone else feels about the pregnancy but herself. It’s never about them, and I have to keep asking, ‘how do you feel about becoming a mother, what do you want?’ I worry most about the 15-16-17-year olds. They have such low self-esteem, and they think that having a baby would make them more of a person… They also think that a baby would give them the love they often don’t feel from anyone or anywhere else.”
I have to keep asking, ‘how do you feel about becoming a mother?’
“It gets to me sometimes,” McCoy said. “Some women think that having the baby would make their boyfriends stay with them, even though they really don’t want to have a child right now. Their need for someone else’s approval takes over everything else. It comes from an empty space that needs to be filled; until you look in the mirror and like the person you see in it, you’re always going to be seeking approval from someone else. They’ve got to learn to stand up for what’s right for them, and sometimes that means simply saying ‘no’.”
She sees this lack of self-esteem among her daughter’s friends, as well. “The message they get from music videos and TV is it’s okay to run around naked and have sex with multiple partners, that this is the way to get attention, to get love.” McCoy cited one young woman who got her tongue pierced. “I asked her why, and she said she did it because men liked that when women gave them oral sex. Now, I could see it if she said she liked the way it looked or the way it felt,” McCoy continued, “but this was to please a man, not herself!”
“Sex is sometimes not really consensual, with girls just going along with it because their boyfriends want it. This is really just another form of abuse,” she said. “Adult women find themselves in this situation so how could teens be different?”
McCoy said her experience at the clinic as well as with her daughter’s friends shows “there’s a great need for programs in schools and other places where teens can come and talk about these things. When you give them a chance to say what’s on their minds, they really open up, and in a group, they encourage each other to talk. They can see that what they’re thinking and going through is similar to what’s happening to others.”
Until that time comes, Sophia McCoy will be on the frontlines, offering her experience, wisdom and reality-based information to help women make informed decisions that are truly right for them.
This is the first article in Rewire’s two-part series about the U.S. immigration system’s effects on unaccompanied children.
Earlier this month, three North Carolina high school students were released from a Lumpkin, Georgia, detention center after spending more than six months awaiting what seemed like their inevitable fate: deportation back to conditions in Central America that threatened their lives.
Wildin David Guillen Acosta, Josue Alexander Soriano Cortez, and Yefri Sorto-Hernandez were released on bail in the span of one week, thanks to an overwhelming community effort involving pro bono attorneys and bond money. However, not everyone targeted under the same government operation has been reprieved. For example, by the time reports emerged that Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) had detained Acosta on his way to school in Durham, North Carolina, the government agency had already quietly deported four other young people from the state, including a teenage girl from Guatemala who attended the same school.
Activated in January, that program—Operation Border Guardian—continues to affect the lives of hundreds of Central American migrants over the age of 18 who came to the United States as unaccompanied children after January 2014. Advocates believe many of those arrested under the operation are still in ICE custody.
Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Jeh Johnson has said that the goal of Operation Border Guardian is to send a message to those in Central America considering seeking asylum in the United States. But it’s not working, as Border Patrol statistics have shown. Furthermore, vulnerable, undocumented youth who pose no real threat are being stripped of their right to an education and instead sit in detention awaiting deportation. These youth arrived at the border in hopes of qualifying for asylum, but were unable to succeed in an immigration system that seems rigged against them.
“The laws are really complicated and [young people] don’t have the community support to navigate this really hostile, complex system. That infrastructure isn’t there and unless we support asylum seekers and other immigrants in this part of the country, we’ll continue to see asylum seekers and former unaccompanied minors receive their deportation orders,” said Julie Mao, the enforcement fellow at the National Immigration Project of the National Lawyers Guild.
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In January, ICE conducted a series of raids that spanned three southern states—Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas—targeting Central American asylum seekers. The raids occurred under the orders of Johnson, who has taken a hardline stance against the more than 100,000 families who have sought asylum in the United States. These families fled deadly gang violence in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala in recent years. In El Salvador, in particular, over 400 children were murdered by gang members and police officers during the first three months of 2016, doubling the country’s homicide rate, which was already among the highest in the world.
ICE picked up some 121 people in the early January raids, primarily women and their young children. Advocates argue many of those arrested were detained unlawfully, because as people who experienced severe trauma and exhibited symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety, and depression, they were disabled as defined under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and ICE did not provide reasonable accommodations to ensure disabled people were not denied meaningful access to benefits or services.
Just a few weeks later, on January 23, ICE expanded the raids’ focus to include teenagers under Operation Border Guardian, which advocates said represented a “new low.”
The media, too, has also criticized DHS for its seemingly senseless targeting of a population that normally would be considered refugees. The New York Times called Operation Border Guardian “a grossly misnamed immigration-enforcement surge that went after people this country did not need to guard against.”
In response to questions about its prioritization of former unaccompanied minors, an ICE spokesperson told Rewire in an emailed statement: “As the secretary has stated repeatedly, our borders are not open to illegal migration. If someone was apprehended at the border, has been ordered removed by an immigration court, has no pending appeal, and does not qualify for asylum or other relief from removal under our laws, he or she must be sent home. We must and we will enforce the law in accordance with our enforcement priorities.”
DHS reports that 336 undocumented Central American youth have been detained in the operation. It’s not clear how many of these youth have already been deported or remain in ICE custody, as the spokesperson did not respond to that question by press time.
Acosta, Cortez, Sorto-Hernandez, and three other North Carolina teenagers—Santos Geovany Padilla-Guzman, Bilmer Araeli Pujoy Juarez, Pedro Arturo Salmeron—have become known as the NC6 and the face of Operation Border Guardian, a designation they likely would have not signed up for.
Advocates estimate that thousands of deportations of low-priority migrants—those without a criminal history—occur each week. What newly arrived Central American asylum seekers like Acosta could not have known was that the federal government had been laying the groundwork for their deportations for years.
Asylum Seekers Become “High-Priority Cases”
In August 2011, the Obama administration announced it would begin reviewing immigration cases individually, allowing ICE to focus its resources on “high-priority cases.” The assumption was that those who pose a threat to public safety, for example, would constitute the administration’s highest priority, not asylum-seeking high school students.
But there was an indication from DHS that asylum-seeking students would eventually be targeted and considered high-priority. After Obama’s announcement, ICE released a statement outlining who would constitute its “highest priorities,” saying, “Specifically individuals who pose a threat to public safety such as criminal aliens and national security threats, as well as repeat immigration law violators and recent border entrants.”
In the years since, President Obama has repeatedly said “recent border crossers” are among the nation’s “highest priorities” for removal—on par with national security threats. Those targeted would be migrants with final orders of removal who, according to the administration, had received their day in court and had no more legal avenues left to seek protection. But, as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported, “recent border entrant” is a murky topic, and it doesn’t appear as if allcases are being reviewed individually as President Obama said they would.
“Recent border entrant” can apply to someone who has been living in the United States for three years, and a border removal applies “whenever ICE deports an individual within three years of entry—regardless of whether the initial entry was authorized—or whenever an individual is apprehended by Customs and Border Protection (CBP),” explained Thomas Homan, the head of ICE’s removal operations in a 2013 hearing with Congress, the ACLU reported.
Chris Rickerd, policy counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington Legislative Office, added that “[b]ecause CBP refuses to screen the individuals it apprehends for their ties to the U.S., and DHS overuses procedures that bypass deportation hearings before a judge, many ‘border removals’ are never fully assessed to determine whether they have a legal right to stay.”
Over the years, DHS has only ramped up the department’s efforts to deport newly arrived immigrants, mostly from Central America. As the Los Angeles Times reported, these deportations are “an attempt by U.S. immigration officials to send a message of deterrence to Central America and avoid a repeat of the 2014 crisis when tens of thousands of children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala arrived at the U.S. border.”
This is something Mao takes great issue with.
“These raids that we keep seeing are being done in order to deter another wave of children from seeking asylum—and that is not a permissible reason,” Mao said. “You deport people based on legality, not as a way of scaring others. Our country, in this political moment, is terrorizing young asylum seekers as a way of deterring others from presenting themselves at the border, and it’s pretty egregious.”
There is a direct correlation between surges of violence in the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—and an uptick in the number of asylum seekers arriving in the United States. El Salvador, known as the murder capital of the word, recently saw an explosion of gang violence. Combine that with the possible re-emergence of so-called death squads and it’s clear why the number of Salvadoran family units apprehended on the southern border increased by 96 percent from 2015 to 2016, as Fusion reported.
Much like Mao, Elisa Benitez, co-founder of the immigrants rights’ organization Alerta Migratoria NC, believes undocumented youth are being targeted needlessly.
“They should be [considered] low-priority just because they’re kids, but immigration is classifying them at a very high level, meaning ICE is operating like this is a population that needs to be arrested ASAP,” Benitez said.
The Plight of Unaccompanied Children
Each member of the NC6 arrived in the United States as an unaccompanied child fleeing violence in their countries of origin. Acosta, for example, was threatened by gangs in his native Honduras and feared for his life. These young people should qualify as refugees based on those circumstances under international law. In the United States, after they present themselves at the border, they have to prove to an immigration judge they have a valid asylum claim—something advocates say is nearly impossible for a child to do with no understanding of the immigration system and, often, with no access to legal counsel—or they face deportation.
Unaccompanied children, if not immediately deported, have certain protections once in the United States. For example, they cannot be placed into expedited removal proceedings. According to the American Immigration Council, “they are placed into standard removal proceedings in immigration court. CBP must transfer custody of these children to Health and Human Services (HHS), Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), within 72 hours.”
While their court proceedings move forward, HHS’s Office of Refugee Resettlement manages the care of the children until they can ideally be released to their parents already based in the country. Sometimes, however, they are placed with distant relatives or U.S. sponsors. Because HHS has lowered its safety standards regarding placement, children have been subjected to sexual abuse, labor trafficking, and severe physical abuse and neglect, ThinkProgress has reported.
If while in the care of their family or a sponsor they miss a court date, detainment or deportation can be triggered once they turn 18 and no longer qualify for protections afforded to unaccompanied children.
This is what happened to Acosta, who was placed with his mother in Durham when he arrived in the United States. ICE contends that Acosta was not targeted unfairly; rather, his missed court appearance triggered his order for removal.
Acosta’s mother told local media that after attending his first court date, Acosta “skipped subsequent ones on the advice of an attorney who told him he didn’t stand a chance.”
“That’s not true, but it’s what they were told,” Benitez said. “So, this idea that all of these kids were given their day in court is false. One kid [we work with] was even told not to sign up for school because ‘there was no point,’ it would just get him deported.”
Benitez told Rewire the reasons why these young people are being targeted and given their final orders of removal need to be re-examined.
Sixty percent of youth from Central America do not ever have access to legal representation throughout the course of their case—from the time they arrive in the United States and are designated as unaccompanied children to the time they turn 18 and are classified as asylum seekers. According to the ACLU, 44 percent of the 23,000 unaccompanied children who were required to attend immigration court this year had no lawyer, and 86 percent of those children were deported.
Immigration attorneys and advocates say that having a lawyer is absolutely necessary if a migrant is to have any chance of winning an asylum claim.
Mao told Rewire that in the Southeast where Acosta and the other members of the NC6 are from, there is a pipeline of youth who arrived in the United States as unaccompanied children who are simply “giving up” on their valid asylum claims because navigating the immigration system is simply too hard.
“They feel the system is rigged, and it is rigged,” Mao said.
Mao has been providing “technical assistance” for Acosta and other members of the NC6. Her organization doesn’t represent individuals in court, she said, but the services it provides are necessary because immigration is such a unique area of law and there are very few attorneys who know how to represent individuals who are detained and who have been designated unaccompanied minors. Those services include providing support, referrals, and technical assistance to advocates, community organizations, and families on deportation defense and custody issues.
Fighting for Asylum From Detention
Once arrested by ICE, there is no telling if someone will linger in detention for months or swiftly be deported. What is known is that if a migrant is taken by ICE in North Carolina, somewhere along the way, they will be transferred to Lumpkin, Georgia’s Stewart Detention Center. As a local paper reported, Stewart is “the last stop before they send you back to whatever country you came from.”
Stewart is the largest detention center in the country, capable of holding 2,000 migrants at any time—it’s also been the subject of numerous investigations because of reports of abuse and inadequate medical care. The detention center is run by Corrections Corporation of America, the country’s largest private prison provider and one that has become synonymous with maintaining inhumane conditions inside of its detention centers. According to a report from the National Immigrant Justice Center, Stewart’s remote location—over two hours away from Atlanta—hinders the facility from attracting and retaining adequate medical staff, while also creating barriers to visitation from attorneys and family members.
There’s also the matter of Georgia being notoriously tough on asylum seekers, even being called the “worst” place to be an undocumented immigrant. The Huffington Postreported that “Atlanta immigration judges have been accused of bullying children, badgering domestic violence victims and setting standards for relief and asylum that lawyers say are next to impossible to meet.” Even more disconcerting, according to a project by Migrahack, which pairs immigration reporters and hackers together, having an attorney in Georgia had almost no effect on whether or not a person won their asylum case, with state courts denying up to 98 percent of asylum requests.
Acosta, Cortez, and Sorto-Hernandez spent over six months in Stewart Detention Center before they were released on bail—a “miracle” according to some accounts, given the fact that only about 5 percent of those detained in Stewart are released on bond.
In the weeks after ICE transferred Acosta to Stewart, there were multiple times Acosta was on the verge of deportation. ICE repeatedly denied Acosta was in danger, but advocates say they had little reason to believe the agency. Previous cases have made them wary of such claims.
Advocates believe that three of the North Carolina teens who were deported earlier this year before Acosta’s case made headlines were kept in detention for months with the goal of wearing them down so that they would sign their own deportation orders despite having valid asylum claims.
“They were tired. They couldn’t handle being in detention. They broke down and as much as they feared being returned to their home countries, they just couldn’t handle being there [in detention] anymore. They’d already been there for weeks,” Benitez said.
While ICE claims the average stay of a migrant in Stewart Detention Center is 30 days, the detention center is notorious for excessively long detainments. Acosta’s own bunkmate had been there over a year, according to Indy Week reporter David Hudnall.
As Hudnall reported, there is a massive backlog of immigration cases in the system—474,000 nationally and over 5,000 in North Carolina.
Mao told Rewire that the amount of time the remaining members of the NC6 will spend in detention varies because of different legal processes, but that it’s not unusual for young people with very strong asylum cases to sign their rights away because they can’t sustain the conditions inside detention.
Pedro Arturo Salmeron, another NC6 member, is still in detention. He was almost deported, but Mao told Rewire her organization was able to support a pro bono attorney in appealing to the Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) to stop proceedings.
Japeth Matemu, an immigration attorney, recently toldIndy Week’s David Hudnall that “the BIA will tell you that it can’t modify the immigration judge’s ruling unless it’s an egregious or obvious miscarriage of justice. You basically have to prove the judge is off his rocker.”
It could take another four months in detention to appeal Salmeron’s case because ICE continues to refuse to release him, according to the legal fellow.
“That’s a low estimate. It could be another year in detention before there is any movement in his case. We as an organization feel that is egregious to detain someone while their case is pending,” Mao said. “We have to keep in mind that these are kids, and some of these kids can’t survive the conditions of adult prison.”
Detention centers operate as prisons do, with those detained being placed in handcuffs and shackles, being stripped of their personal belongings, with no ability to move around freely. One of Acosta’s teachers told Rewire he wasn’t even able to receive his homework in detention.
Many of those in detention centers have experienced trauma. Multiple studies confirm that “detention has a profoundly negative impact on young people’s mental and physical well-being” and in the particular case of asylum seekers, detention may exacerbate their trauma and symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.
“People are so traumatized by the raids, and then you add detention on top of that. Some of these kids cannot psychologically and physically deal with the conditions in detention, so they waive their rights,” Mao said.
In March, Salmeron and fellow NC6 member Yefri Sorto-Hernandez received stays of deportation, meaning they would not face immediate deportation. ICE says a stay is like a “legal pause.” During the pause, immigration officials decide if evidence in the case will be reconsidered for asylum. Sorto-Hernandez was released five months later.
Benitez said that previously when she organized around detention, a stay of deportation meant the person would get released from detention, but ICE’s decision to detain some of the NC6 indefinitely until their cases are heard illustrates how “weirdly severe” the agency is being toward this particular population. Mao fears this is a tactic being used by ICE to break down young people in detention.
“ICE knows it will take months, and frankly up to a year, for some of these motions to go through the court system, but the agency is still refusing to release individuals. I can’t help but think it’s with the intention that these kids will give up their claims while suffering in detention,” Mao said.
“I think we really have to question that, why keep these young people locked up when they can be with their communities, with their families, going to school? ICE can release these kids now, but for showmanship, ICE is refusing to let them go. Is this who we want to be, is this the message we want to send the world?” she asked.
In the seven months since the announcement of Operation Border Guardian, DHS has remained quiet about whether or not there will be more raids on young Central American asylum seekers. As a new school year approaches, advocates fear that even more students will be receiving their orders for removal, and unlike the NC6, they may not have a community to rally around them, putting them at risk of quietly being deported and not heard from again.
“It felt heartbreaking,” said Melanie Jones. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”
Melanie Jones arrived for her doctor’s appointment bleeding and in pain. Jones, 28, who lives in the Chicago area, had slipped in her bathroom, and suspected the fall had dislodged her copper intrauterine device (IUD).
Her doctor confirmed the IUD was dislodged and had to be removed. But the doctor said she would be unable to remove the IUD, citing Catholic restrictions followed by Mercy Hospital and Medical Center and providers within its system.
“I think my first feeling was shock,” Jones told Rewire in an interview. “I thought that eventually they were going to recognize that my health was the top priority.”
The doctor left Jones to confer with colleagues, before returning to confirm that her “hands [were] tied,” according to two complaints filed by the ACLU of Illinois. Not only could she not help her, the doctor said, but no one in Jones’ health insurance network could remove the IUD, because all of them followed similar restrictions. Mercy, like many Catholic providers, follows directives issued by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops that restrict access to an array of services, including abortion care, tubal ligations, and contraception.
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Some Catholic providers may get around the rules by purporting to prescribe hormonal contraception for acne or heavy periods, rather than for birth control, but in the case of copper IUDs, there is no such pretext available.
“She told Ms. Jones that that process [of switching networks] would take her a month, and that she should feel fortunate because sometimes switching networks takes up to six months or even a year,” the ACLU of Illinois wrote in a pair of complaints filed in late June.
Jones hadn’t even realized her health-care network was Catholic.
Mercy has about nine off-site locations in the Chicago area, including the Dearborn Station office Jones visited, said Eric Rhodes, senior vice president of administrative and professional services. It is part of Trinity Health, one of the largest Catholic health systems in the country.
The ACLU and ACLU of Michigan sued Trinity last year for its “repeated and systematic failure to provide women suffering pregnancy complications with appropriate emergency abortions as required by federal law.”The lawsuit was dismissed but the ACLU has asked for reconsideration.
In a written statement to Rewire, Mercy said, “Generally, our protocol in caring for a woman with a dislodged or troublesome IUD is to offer to remove it.”
Rhodes said Mercy was reviewing its education process on Catholic directives for physicians and residents.
“That act [of removing an IUD] in itself does not violate the directives,” Marty Folan, Mercy’s director of mission integration, told Rewire.
The number of acute care hospitals that are Catholic owned or affiliated has grown by 22 percent over the past 15 years, according to MergerWatch, with one in every six acute care hospital beds now in a Catholic owned or affiliated facility. Women in such hospitals have been turned away while miscarrying and denied tubal ligations.
“We think that people should be aware that they may face limitations on the kind of care they can receive when they go to the doctor based on religious restrictions,” said Lorie Chaiten, director of the women’s and reproductive rights project of the ACLU of Illinois, in a phone interview with Rewire. “It’s really important that the public understand that this is going on and it is going on in a widespread fashion so that people can take whatever steps they need to do to protect themselves.”
Jones left her doctor’s office, still in pain and bleeding. Her options were limited. She couldn’t afford a $1,000 trip to the emergency room, and an urgent care facility was out of the question since her Blue Cross Blue Shield of Illinois insurance policy would only cover treatment within her network—and she had just been told that her entire network followed Catholic restrictions.
Jones, on the advice of a friend, contacted the ACLU of Illinois. Attorneys there advised Jones to call her insurance company and demand they expedite her network change. After five hours of phone calls, Jones was able to see a doctor who removed her IUD, five days after her initial appointment and almost two weeks after she fell in the bathroom.
Before the IUD was removed, Jones suffered from cramps she compared to those she felt after the IUD was first placed, severe enough that she medicated herself to cope with the pain.
She experienced another feeling after being turned away: stigma.
“It felt heartbreaking,” Jones told Rewire. “It felt like they were telling me that I had done something wrong, that I had made a mistake and therefore they were not going to help me; that they stigmatized me, saying that I was doing something wrong, when I’m not doing anything wrong. I’m doing something that’s well within my legal rights.”
The ACLU of Illinois has filed two complaints in Jones’ case: one before the Illinois Department of Human Rights and another with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office for Civil Rights under the anti-discrimination provision of the Affordable Care Act. Chaiten said it’s clear Jones was discriminated against because of her gender.
“We don’t know what Mercy’s policies are, but I would find it hard to believe that if there were a man who was suffering complications from a vasectomy and came to the emergency room, that they would turn him away,” Chaiten said. “This the equivalent of that, right, this is a woman who had an IUD, and because they couldn’t pretend the purpose of the IUD was something other than pregnancy prevention, they told her, ‘We can’t help you.’”