It is the official policy of the Trump administration that undocumented minors in federal custody may not obtain abortions, even if their pregnancies resulted from rape. In March, the Office of Refugee Resettlement announced that the federally funded shelters that hold these minors may not take “any action that facilitates” abortion without approval from ORR Director Scott Lloyd. An anti-abortion activist, Lloyd has refused to let several young women leave their shelters in order to terminate their pregnancies. For months, ORR refused to reveal Lloyd’s justification for this ban on abortion access. But on Thursday, in response to a lawsuit, it published a redacted version of Lloyd’s memo explaining his decision to bar an undocumented teenager from getting an abortion, despite the fact that she likely conceived via sexual assault. The memo provides a vivid glimpse into how Lloyd imposes his anti-abortion ideology on minors under the pretext of protecting their “best interest.”
Lloyd began by acknowledging that the teenager requesting an abortion, known as Jane Poe, “is pregnant with the child of her attacker.” Shortly after being raped, Poe was apprehended attempting to cross into the United States illegally. She asked for an abortion but “rescinded the request” after her mother, as well as her probable sponsor, “threatened to ‘beat’ her if she did so.” A few days later, however, she asked again, and “has on at least one occasion threatened to harm herself if she does not obtain” the procedure. But, Lloyd added: “There is no indication that the pregnancy threatens her physical health in any way.”
When Lloyd wrote this memo, Poe was “nearly 22 weeks” pregnant.
“The child has at least a fighting chance at survival if born,” Lloyd noted—then described in graphic detail “the most likely method of abortion,” dilation and evacuation, which “even many abortionists find troublesome.” This procedure, Lloyd wrote, is “violence that has the ultimate destruction of another human being as its goal.”
An abortion, Lloyd asserted, “does not here cure the reality that she is the victim of an assault. … It is possible, and perhaps likely, that this young woman would go on to experience an abortion as an additional trauma on top of the trauma she experiences as a result of her sexual assault.” He elaborated:
Although formal research on this matter appears to be sparse, those who have worked with women who have experienced abortion have compiled a catalogue of anecdotal evidence, impossible to ignore, that shows that many women go on to experience it as a devastating trauma, even in the instance of rape. If the young woman was to go on to regret her abortion and experience it as a trauma, ORR will have had a hand in causing that trauma, and I am unwilling to put this young woman or ORR in that position.
To bolster this claim, Lloyd cited dubiously sourced stories from the anti-abortion group Hope After Abortion. In fact, multiple studies have confirmed that very few women regret their abortions, and the “overwhelming majority” of women feel they made the right decision. But instead of looking to academic studies, Lloyd cited “Brenda’s Story” from Life After Abortion, which concludes: “It constantly weighed on my mind that I was in a state of mortal sin—I had killed my baby.” He also cited a notorious 2007 passage written by Justice Anthony Kennedy declaring that “some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained.” (This gratuitous line was not part of the court’s holding; it is not law or binding precedent, and Kennedy has since voted to strike down restrictions on abortion access.)
“I am mindful,” Lloyd continued, “that abortion is offered by some as a solution to a rape. I disagree.” He explained:
Implicit here are the dubious notions that it is possible to cure violence with further violence, and that the destruction of an unborn child’s life can in some instances be acceptable as a means to an end. To decline to assist in an abortion here is to decline to participate in violence against an innocent life. … Here there is no medical reason for abortion, it will not undo or erase the memory of the violence committed against her, and it may further traumatize her. I conclude it is not her interest.
“We cannot be a place of refuge while we are at the same time a place of violence,” Lloyd concluded. “We have to choose, and we ought to choose protect life rather than to destroy it.”
Although Lloyd’s memo refers to Poe’s case, it appears to represent ORR’s broader policy toward abortion. In any capacity, the memo reflects a startling disregard for the legal autonomy of women that borders on lawlessness. It is extremely doubtful that Lloyd has the authority to block undocumented minors’ abortions in the first place. When he wrote this letter, a federal appeals court had already compelled ORR to let a different minor (who was not raped) terminate her pregnancy. Yet he chose to inflict the same policy—which the court had found unconstitutional—on another teenager. Lloyd’s anti-abortion diktat has always pushed the boundaries of the law. But its imposition on a teenager pregnant through rape presents an obvious violation of her rights under the Constitution.
Ultimately, Lloyd lost his authority to block Poe’s abortion. A federal judge ordered him to let her obtain the procedure on Monday, and the government declined to appeal the decision for reasons that remain ambiguous. Poe will be permitted to terminate her pregnancy.
But Lloyd has made clear that, moving forward, he will not allow a single undocumented minor in federal custody to terminate her pregnancy—even if she conceived via rape and threatens to harm herself because she does not wish to remain pregnant. Why? Because abortion is “violence” that is never in a woman’s “best interest.” Lloyd has a right to hold this radical view. But the Constitution does not give him, or anybody else, the power to impose it upon women by government mandate.
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