After a three-year court battle, the Trump administration announced Tuesday that it would officially stop blocking pregnant undocumented teenagers in its custody from getting abortions.
Under a new policy, the Office of Refugee Resettlement, which cares for minors who enter the country without parents and without authorization, would no longer seek to stop those minors from undergoing abortions. Staffers at the Office of Refugee Resettlement are now also largely barred from telling people outside the agency that a minor in its care is pregnant.
The fight over this policy dates back to late 2017, when a 17-year-old Central American immigrant, identified in court documents as Jane Doe, came forward to accuse the Office of Refugee Resettlement of blocking her from getting an abortion. Even though Doe had obtained a court order that let her get an abortion without alerting her parents of her decision, Office of Refugee Resettlement staffers told her parents about her pregnancy anyway.
Although a court order helped Doe get an abortion, it turned out that she wasn’t alone. Over the ensuing months, a handful of other minors said that they, too, were being blocked from getting abortions. One of those minors had become pregnant due to rape.
The then-head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Scott Lloyd, had said that agency policy required him to personally authorize every request for an abortion. During a deposition with the ACLU, which handled Doe’s case, Lloyd, a longtime anti-abortion crusader, struggled to identify a scenario in which he’d agree to such a request.
In March 2018, a federal district judge ordered the Office of Refugee Resettlement to stop interfering with minors’ ability to get abortions. The Trump administration refused to give up, and even asked the Supreme Court to step in; in June 2018, that court ruled to let the case continue.
But the administration did not ask the Supreme Court to challenge a June 2019 ruling from a federal district court, which found that denying the minors abortions violated Roe v. Wade’s guarantee that people have a constitutional right to end their pregnancies. Instead, the Trump administration started working with ACLU to start hammering out a new policy that would satisfy the court order and end the case.
The ACLU filed papers in court Tuesday attesting that, given the new policy, the organization would drop the case. The Trump administration will also cover the ACLU’s attorneys’ fees, to the tune of $336,710.
Brigitte Amiri, deputy director of the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, told VICE News in an interview that she still doesn’t understand the administration’s sudden turnaround on the case.
“It is so puzzling, right?” Amiri said. “They fought us tooth and nail, and even went so far as to accuse my colleagues and me of misconduct in Supreme Court filings.” (The Supreme Court declined the Trump administration’s request to sanction ACLU attorneys on the case.)
The Department of Justice didn’t reply to a VICE News request for comment on why it stopped pursuing the case.
In an article published in the Federalist on Monday, Lloyd, who left the Trump administration in June 2019, urged it to not give up on the fight. He attributed the administration’s prior reluctance to argue the case up to the Supreme Court to a fear that Justice Brett Kavanaugh, a Trump nominee who had heard the case at a lower court, would recuse himself and deprive the administration of the votes it needed to win.
Now, he wrote, a recent Supreme Court decision on an immigration case “provides a sound legal basis for a renewed policy of refusing to assist in obtaining abortions for teens who are temporarily in the care of the United States.”
“The U.S. government should do all it can to avoid this entanglement in the practice of abortion,” Lloyd added. “From a policy perspective, such a reform ends government assistance in the destruction of innocent human life.”
When reached by VICE News, Lloyd declined to immediately comment.
Lloyd often found himself in the spotlight during his time at the Office of Refugee Resettlement. He oversaw the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the height of the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” policy, which saw thousands of migrant children separated from their families at the border.
At one point during his tenure, Lloyd discussed trying to use a controversial, scientifically unproven method to “reverse” a teenager’s abortion. He also kept a spreadsheet of information about the pregnant minors in ORR’s custody, which was later alleged to have helped track these minors’ periods.
Lloyd told VICE News that the accusation that he’d tracked minors’ menstrual periods was “disgusting,” and that he’d never noticed that information was there until members of Congress started asking him about it. The spreadsheet included the gestational age of the fetus, which would indicate the timing of the minor’s last menstrual period. Out of its hundreds of entries, the spreadsheet explicitly noted information about two teenagers’ “last menstrual cycle.”
Cover: In this Oct. 20, 2017, photo, activists with Planned Parenthood demonstrate in support of a pregnant 17-year-old being held in a Texas facility for unaccompanied immigrant children to obtain an abortion, outside of the Department of Health and Human Services in Washington.(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)