AmeriCorps Becomes New Target for Anti-Abortion Legislators

Republican lawmakers intent on relentlessly investigating any organization that receives public funding and has ties to abortion services have now set their sights on AmeriCorps.

An investigation by the Office of the Inspector General for the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), which runs AmeriCorps, found the program in violation of the Serve America Act last week for having six volunteers trained as abortion doulas to provide emotional support for patients of three New York City clinics operated by the Institute for Family Health. Section 132 of the Serve America Act, the federal statute authorizing the AmeriCorps program, states that “Prohibited Activities and Ineligible Organizations” include “Providing abortion services or referrals for receipt of such services.”

While the medical community interprets the provision as actually engaging in the act of administering abortion procedures and related care, the Office of the Inspector General has broadly interpreted the prohibition for federal volunteers to include providing emotional support or referrals and information about abortion care.

Samantha Jo Warfield, a spokeswoman for CNCS, released a statement shortly after the report came to light on April 25.

“We are deeply disappointed that the National Association of Community Health Centers authorized national service participants to perform prohibited activities,” Warfield said. “Although the Office of the Inspector General’s investigation concluded the misconduct occurred on an extremely limited scope, the grantee broke the law and violated the spirit of national service.”

The Office of the Inspector General’s broad interpretation of the abortion prohibition has opened the door to harsh demands from anti-abortion legislators — including the termination of grants to the National Association of Community Health Centers.

“I am outraged by the terrible misuse of taxpayer dollars under the direction of the National Association of Community Health Centers,” Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma), chairman of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies, said in a press release. “While participating in the Community HealthCorps program, it is absolutely unacceptable that AmeriCorps members were wrongfully instructed and encouraged to assist in abortion-related procedures and services at community health centers. Such activity is expressly prohibited by federal law. Abortion-related procedures should never be funded by taxpayers. Given these disturbing developments, I believe this grantee should be immediately terminated from the HealthCorps program.”

The National Association of Community Health Centers in Bethesda, Maryland, which trained the AmeriCorps members, has received about $30 million in federal grant money from AmeriCorps in the last five years to administer the Community HealthCorps program, which places volunteers in over 200 community health centers around the country to assist with education, translation and expansion of services to older adults, people with disabilities, veterans and other underserved populations. Volunteers provide social support, disseminate financial knowledge as it relates to health care and seek to increase utilization of preventative and primary health care services.

Cole sent a letter to CNCS CEO Wendy Spencer calling for further internal reviews by the National Association of Community Health Centers.

“I urge you to immediately initiate a rigorous investigation into all grantees and sub-grantees in the AmeriCorps program to determine whether there are other violations and to correct them,” wrote Cole.

Other senior lawmakers, including Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Rep. Fred Upton (R-Michigan), have also condemned AmeriCorps and its partners for the “shameful failure of trust.”

The National Association of Community Health Centers issued a statement saying it “moved immediately to cease the activity in question, and suspended the identified site’s AmeriCorps members for a period until they and their site supervisors were retrained and revised member service contracts were reviewed and signed.”

The National Association of Community Health Centers added:

All 38 sub-grantee program coordinators and HealthCorps grant staff at NACHC were also retrained. Health centers do not plan to, nor are they seeking to, become providers of abortion. We value the bipartisan support health centers have earned through successive administrations and are in favor of any measure to clarify that health centers are good stewards of federal investments.

This is not the first time congressional Republicans have singled out AmeriCorps — a program with over 75,000 members stationed around the country each year — for the activity of just a few. In his letter to Spencer, Cole referenced an incident from 2011, two years before the National Association of Community Health Centers trained volunteers to provide emotional support to patients seeking abortion care. A hearing arranged by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) found that two AmeriCorps members were engaged in prohibited political advocacy work for Planned Parenthood of New York City. The Serve America Act disallows any political activity, including registering people to vote and union organizing. CNCS acted swiftly, stepping in to end the assignment.

Democrats on Foxx’s House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training were outspoken five years ago, praising AmeriCorps members for helping victims of the recent tornado in Joplin, Missouri, and questioning the need for the 2011 inquiry — one similar to that called for now by Cole.

“I’m a little bit at a loss kind of why we’re here,” Rep. George Miller (D-California) said at the time.

“We should choose groups to oversee where there’s a real problem, not where you have an ideological bent or somebody has an ideological bent about one particular agency,” said Rep. John Tierney (D-Massachusetts).

NARAL Pro-Choice America is pushing back on the reaction to the report on AmeriCorps. More broadly, advocates are calling out the problems with the federal law that the violation is founded on, particularly the “gag rule” disallowing AmeriCorps volunteers from discussing abortion care with those they are commissioned to help.

“Banning AmeriCorps volunteers from referring women for abortion services is yet another abhorrent example of this unfair targeting of low-income women,” NARAL vice president Sasha Bruce wrote in a letter to supporters.

The singling out of abortion from among the many health care-related activities that AmeriCorps members are explicitly allowed to engage in according to the Serve America Act has led some advocates to relate this investigation and federal law violation to the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits federally funded insurance programs from reimbursing for abortion care except in rare cases. AmeriCorps’ Community HealthCorps has over 7,300 members and alumni who are authorized by the Serve America Act to assist “economically disadvantaged individuals in navigating the health services system” and help “individuals in obtaining access to health services … for themselves or their children,” as well as to engage in “educating economically disadvantaged individuals who are members of medically underserved populations … with a particular focus on common health conditions … for which socioeconomic, geographic, and racial and ethnic health disparities exist.”

Access to abortion has historically been accessible to those of means, even before prohibition was lifted by the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. The disparity in access to this procedure that one in three people capable of becoming pregnant will have in their lifetime persists along economic and racial lines. NARAL’s framing of who is targeted by the broad interpretation of the disallowed activities references this history and current disparity.

Republicans’ call to devote more time and taxpayer resources to investigating an abortion-related activity comes on the heels of last month’s “Select Investigative Panel on Infant Lives” — the fifth time Congress has held a hearing to discuss thoroughly debunked allegations that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue for profit. Less than a week before the report on AmeriCorps was issued, yet another federal investigation into Planned Parenthood was announced by a group of 125 representatives and senators lead by Rep. Diane Black (R-Tennessee) and Sen. David Vitter (R-Louisiana).