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Government Contractor Issues Gag Order on Its Lawyers About Abortion Rights

by Dale Chappell

In fear of losing it $285 million contract with the government, a group that provides lawyers to immigrant children told its lawyers to stop telling minors about their rights to access abortion services.

The February 2 email sent by the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice to its lawyers said there is a "very real risk" to its program (contract) "if issues other than immigration are addressed in consultations" with immigrant minors -- "the abortion issue in particular." Vera provides legal services to more than 50,000 immigrant children who cross the border without their parents, who do not have a legal right to a lawyer in court. Vera has a five-year contract with HHS for $57 million a year.

Anne Marie Mulchahy, director of Vera's unaccompanied minors program and author of the email, said a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) employee called her and "directed us to ensure that Vera's legal services providers are not talking to children in HHS custody about abortion." Vera also instructed its lawyers to immediately stop any reference to abortion from its "Know Your Rights" flyer given to immigrant children.

The move is not surprising to some. When E. Scott Lloyd took over the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) under HHS, which has custody of the immigrant children, he refused to allow ORR to "facilitate" abortions for pregnant immigrant minors in its custody, even at the minor's own expense. Past presidential administrations, Republican or Democrat, did not interfere with immigrant minors' rights to obtain abortions, said Robert Carey, who was ORR's director until January 2017.

Lloyd's position on abortion rights has sparked a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to stop ORR from blocking access to abortions. Brigitte Amiri, a lawyer for the ACLU, said Vera's gag order on its lawyers is "part of Scott Lloyd's campaign to restrict access to abortions for these young people and it’s deeply troubling."

"It's hard to overstate what a breach this is into what the communications lawyers are supposed to be providing," Kari Hong, an immigration law expert and Boston College law professor, said about Vera's gag order on its lawyers. Some members of Congress have said Lloyd's instruction to Vera to silence its lawyers on abortion are a "gross violation of legal ethics," and that Lloyd is "unfit for office."

While HHS has not commented on the email, a department spokesman stated it "has not issued a new directive on the matter of abortion" to Vera, but Vera said it is routinely given verbal orders by ORR on its operations.


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