EXCLUSIVE: Trump officials discussed "reversing" abortion for undocumented teen

Office of Refugee Resettlement Director Scott Lloyd investigated a controversial procedure to stop an abortion in progress
January 31, 2018, 10:00pm

The Trump administration official in charge of the Office of Refugee Resettlement discussed trying to use a controversial, scientifically unproven method to reverse an undocumented teen's abortion, according to documents reviewed by VICE News.

Scott Lloyd, a longtime crusader against abortion who heads the agency that oversees undocumented minors who enter the country without their parents, spoke with staffers about trying to reverse the abortion of a pregnant teen in their custody, according to a deposition he underwent as part of a lawsuit between the Trump administration and the American Civil Liberties Union.

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In the past few years, opponents of abortion have championed the idea of halting a medication abortion midway by using the hormone progesterone. Anti-abortion activists have pushed governors in four states to sign laws requiring healthcare providers to tell patients about this so-called “abortion reversal” method. But there is no credible medical evidence that such a procedure works, and the mainstream medical community worries that using it amounts to experimentation on women.

Read: Meet the doctor who convinces women he can "reverse" abortions

Nevertheless, Lloyd said in the deposition that he and his staff discussed the possibility of abortion reversal. Emails obtained by VICE News, including one sent last March to the clinic handling the abortion of a teenager in ORR’s custody, also mention progesterone explicitly and show that officials had questions about the feasibility of using it “for the purpose of aborting a chemical abortion process.”

Since October, four teens have accused the administration of blocking them from getting abortions while they were in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement. In an internal administration document describing his decision to refuse to allow one of those teenagers — who’d been impregnated by rape — to get an abortion, Lloyd called the procedure “violence that has the ultimate destruction of another human being as its goal.”

Watch: Our full interview with Jane Doe about her abortion battle

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There is no evidence that anyone actually tried to use progesterone to reverse this teen’s abortion in March. The Trump administration officials ultimately did allow her to take that second pill and complete the abortion, according to a March 6 Health and Human Services Department memo addressed, in part, from Lloyd. The subject of “abortion reversal” arose in the deposition when Brigitte Amiri, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Reproductive Freedom Project, asked Lloyd about medication abortion.

Patients undergoing medication abortion take two pills. After ingesting the first, they have between 24 and 48 hours to take the second and complete the abortion, according to the Food and Drug Administration.

But in March 2017, the Trump administration delayed allowing an undocumented, pregnant teen to take the second pill for several hours in order to determine the “health status” of her “unborn child,” according to the March 6 memo. According to the memo, an examination of the teen at a local hospital found a fetal heartbeat more than 24 hours after the teen took the first pill in the medication abortion.

"HHS does not believe we are required to facilitate the abortion."

In the December deposition, Amiri asked Lloyd why ORR officials would undertake such a hospital visit. Lloyd told her, “I’m not, I’m not exactly sure.”

“Did you have conversations about whether the medication abortion could be reversed?” she asked.

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“I may have,” Lloyd said.

Amiri asked, “Who did you have those conversations with?”

Lloyd said, “Other transition staff, including attorneys.” “Why would ORR seek to try to reverse the abortion of an unaccompanied minor?” “I don’t know, I mean except to save the life of the baby,” Lloyd replied.

A spokesperson for HHS’ Administration of Children and Families declined to comment for this story and referred VICE News to the agency’s previous statements on the four teens’ court cases. “The minors in this case — who entered the country illegally — have the option to voluntarily depart to their home country or find a suitable sponsor,” the agency said in December. “If they choose not to exercise these options, HHS does not believe we are required to facilitate the abortion." On March 3, 2017, the teen, a 17-year-old from El Salvador, took a pill to start her medication abortion, according to the March 6 memo. The teen, presumably in federal custody after entering the country without authorization, told immigration officials her pregnancy was the result of rape. She’d also already secured the permission of a Texas judge to carry out the abortion.

She planned to take the second pill the next day, according to the March 6 memo, which was first filed as an exhibit in the ACLU lawsuit. Just minutes before midnight on March 3, however, then-acting ORR Director Kenneth Tota blasted out an email to his staff: Under ORR policy, he said, shelters cannot let the minors in their custody seek abortion without written permission from the head of the Office of Refugee Resettlement.

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Read: Some states are using junk science to require doctors to tell women they can reverse an abortion In a March 4 memo outlining ORR’s policy, Tota specifically mentioned the abortion underway in Texas. “If steps can be taken to preserve the life of the UAC and her unborn child, those steps should be taken,” Tota wrote, using the abbreviation for “Unaccompanied Alien Child,” the technical term for minors in ORR’s custody. He added, “In any event, the health and safety of the UAC must be preserved.” On the same day Tota sent that memo, the abortion clinic handling the teen’s care received an email from an official at the ORR-operated shelter housing the teen, which asked questions about the safety of using the hormone progesterone to reverse an abortion. “On behalf of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, please answer this questionnaire as soon as possible,” the email begins. It goes on to ask four questions, including, “To the best of your knowledge and clinical practice, is the administration of progesterone following administration of Mefiprix [sic], but before the administration of Cytotec, for the purpose of aborting a chemical abortion process, widely practiced?”

Cytotec and “Mefiprix,” which is likely a misspelled reference to Mifeprex, are drugs used in medication abortion.

The abortion clinic didn’t reply to this email, according to a clinic representative who asked to remain anonymous due to safety concerns. HHS’ Administration of Children and Families also declined to comment on whether any ORR-affiliated official ever contacted this clinic.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists doesn’t recommend trying to “reverse” a medication abortion in progress, and says progesterone is “generally well tolerated” by pregnant women but can cause side effects. Instead of administering progesterone and embarking on an experimental medical procedure, women who are rethinking their medication abortions should likely just skip taking the second pill, doctors told VICE News.

Few patients are known to have successfully undergone abortion reversals. The group Abortion Pill Reversal, which promotes the controversial method, bases its claims on a study of seven patients who received the progesterone protocol between 2006 and 2011. More than 120,000 medication abortions were performed in the United States in 2014, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Ultimately, ORR officials still allowed the teen’s abortion to proceed on Sunday, March 5, within a safe time frame. The March 6 memo stressed, “Neither ORR nor the facility may provide consent for the abortion, but that ORR was also not obstructing the minor to pursue her wishes.”

Cover: Scott Lloyd, director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, testifies during a House Judiciary Committee hearing concerning the oversight of the U.S. refugee admissions program, on Capitol Hill, October 26, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)