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Federal budget proposal draws criticism for slashing foreign aid

Washington D.C., Mar 15, 2019 / 12:36 am (CNA).- A Catholic aid agency is asking Congress to maintain its commitment to international humanitarian funding, after the Trump administration proposed a federal budget that would cut foreign aid by 24 percent.

In a March 12 statement, Catholic Relief Services warned that the Trump administration’s fiscal year 2020 budget request “would undermine dramatic progress in global poverty reduction over the past two decades, disproportionately affecting vulnerable and marginalized people.”

The budget proposal, released earlier this week, would cut foreign aid by nearly one-quarter, and would combine current departments for international food aid, disaster response, and migrant and refugee assistance.

Given drastic humanitarian crises currently ongoing throughout the world, the U.S. should be increasing, not decreasing, its funding for international aid, a top CRS official told a recent congressional subcommittee.

Bill O’Keefe, CRS executive vice president for mission, mobilization, and advocacy, told the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs that violence, droughts and other disasters have left millions vulnerable and in need of aid.

“U.S. foreign assistance is a moral and practical imperative. Poverty not only causes unnecessary suffering, but also breeds instability. Aid empowers local leadership, builds local capacity and supports a community on its journey to self-reliance,” O’Keefe said.

The United States should be maintaining a leadership role in offering humanitarian aid, especially for the more than 68 million people displaced from their homes globally, he told the members of Congress on the subcommittee.

O’Keefe specifically called for U.S. money to be allocated for development aid, disaster response, migrant and refugee assistance, and disease eradication.

Catholic Relief Services highlighted the situation in Venezuela, where 3 million people have fled as extreme shortages of food, medicine, and water are compounded by political unrest.

In addition, the agency said, millions in the Horn of Africa are experiencing drought conditions that are expected to create widespread conditions of severe hunger this year, with the Famine Early Warning Systems Network predicting up to 30 percent crop failure in some areas.

Matt Davis, CRS regional director for East Africa, said the agency is “very concerned by the deteriorating conditions in the region where we are seeing families – whose lives rely on the land – unable to cope.”

He warned against changes to U.S. funding that “could abandon millions of families around the world just when they need help the most.”

Most families in the Horn of Africa are small-holder farmers, and “much of the livestock – which many families depend on for a living – has already died off, been sold, or eaten,” Catholic Relief Services said.

“In South Sudan, 7.7 million people – more than half the population – will need food assistance by August. That crisis has been caused by both conflict and drought,” the agency added.

Humanitarian aid is currently being offered to alleviate the situation in parts of the Horn of Africa, Davis explained, but more help is necessary.

CRS works with local groups to help the communities in the region prepare for droughts, as well as to increase their resistance against drought through new technology, micro-savings programs and education on nutrition and health.

The agency counts on U.S. foreign aid funding for these efforts, as well as emergency food distribution in times of crisis.

Similar foreign aid cuts were proposed by the Trump administration last year, but rejected by Congress. Catholic Relief Services asked Congress to again reiterate its commitment to foreign aid funding.

“Helping the poor is a moral imperative, and a wise investment in global stability,” Davis said.

Catholic leaders speak out against 'Remain in Mexico' policy

Washington D.C., Mar 14, 2019 / 06:32 pm (CNA).- Catholic leaders released a statement this week in disagreement with the United States’ expansion of a policy that restricts asylum seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border.

“We oppose U.S. policy requiring asylum seekers to remain in Mexico while waiting to access protection in the United States. We urge the Administration to reverse this policy, which needlessly increases the suffering of the most vulnerable and violates international protocols,” the statement read.  

Bishop Joe Vasquez of Austin, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Migration, and Sean Callahan, president and CEO of Catholic Relief Services, released the joint statement on March 13.

First implemented in January, the Migrant Protection Protocols require asylum seekers at the San Ysidro border crossing to remain in Mexico while immigration courts process their case – a procedure that may take years. In previous administrations, asylum seekers were often permitted to remain in the U.S. while awaiting their court dates.

The U.S. government announced Tuesday that the program would now be expanded to the border crossing in Calexico, which is about 120 miles outside of San Diego. Department of Homeland Security officials stated that 240 asylum seekers have been returned to Mexico since the policy was enacted. They anticipate that the number will grow significantly as the program expands.

In February, a lawsuit was introduced in federal court challenging the policy, which is known unofficially as the “Remain in Mexico” policy. The suit claims that the program puts asylum seekers at risk because of Mexico’s dangerous conditions. A federal judge has not yet announced whether an injunction will be granted to block the policy while it is being considered in court.

The Associated Press reported that Mexico’s Foreign Relations and Interior departments objected to the policy update, which they say was made unilaterally by the United States. However, citing “humanitarian reasons,” the departments said a majority of the asylum seekers returned to Mexico will be allowed to stay.  

Vasquez and Callahan also voiced opposition to the policy, emphasizing the rights of the people seeking shelter from harsh conditions, especially from the dangers witnessed in Central America. 

“We steadfastly affirm a person’s right to seek asylum and find recent efforts to curtail and deter that right deeply troubling. We must look beyond our borders; families are escaping extreme violence and poverty at home and are fleeing for their lives,” the statement read.

The Church leaders reiterated the call of Pope Francis to protect and welcome immigrants and encouraged the government to respond with policies that best promote human dignity.

“Our government must adopt policies and provide more funding that address root causes of migration and promote human dignity and sustainable livelihoods,” they said.

 

Ban on gender transition among US military to take effect next month

Washington D.C., Mar 14, 2019 / 05:19 pm (CNA).- Troops enlisting and serving in the U.S. military will have to serve as their biological sex and are forbidden from transitioning to another gender, a new Department of Defense policy states.

The policy was announced in a memo that was obtained by the Associated Press March 12. The policy will go into effect April 12.

While not a ban on transgender persons in the military altogether, the new policy will presumably result in many transgender troops being discharged from the military if they wish to serve under a different sex, seek cross-sex hormones, or gender transition surgeries.

The new policy has additional rules regarding gender dysphoria, a condition where someone identifies as a different gender than their biological sex. Recruits with a history of gender dysphoria will not be permitted to join the military unless they can show they have been identifying with their birth gender for three years and have not transitioned to a different gender.

If someone in the military were to be diagnosed with gender dysphoria, this new policy would not permit them medically or surgically to transition to a different gender.

Transgender individuals who are either already enlisted or under contract to join the military prior to the start of the new policy will be grandfathered in to the transgender policy introduced in 2016 by then-President Barack Obama. That policy permitted transgender troops, and allowed those serving in the military to change their gender marker and begin to transition genders.

Per the updated policy, exceptions would have to be made for transgender individuals to continue to access health care associated with their gender transition. Those with gender dysphoria will be permitted to serve as their identified gender.

According to the Department of Defense website, there are “many transgender individuals already are serving honorably in uniform,” and they will not be removed from the military.

“DOD policy prohibits involuntary separation solely on the basis of gender identity, and it seeks to protect the privacy of transgender service members,” says the website.

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D) said in a statement that the new policy was “bigoted” and a “stunning attack on the patriots who keep us safe and on the most fundamental ideals of our nation.”

There is no reliable data on the number of transgender troops in the military. Estimates suggest there could be as many as 10,000 transgender troops, with about 1,000 troops diagnosed with gender dysphoria. There are a little over 2 million members of the U.S. military.

Pelosi said that the House of Representatives would fight against this “discriminatory action, which has no place in our country.”

The Supreme Court ruled in January 2019 that President Donald Trump’s ban on transgender persons in the military was legal and could proceed. Trump announced this policy change in July 2017, in a tweet posted to Twitter. In that tweet, Trump said that there was “tremendous medical costs and disruption” associated with transgender troops.

The next month, the Pentagon announced a new policy that would permit transgender soldiers in the military, as long as they have not been diagnosed with gender dysphoria and have not transitioned from their birth sex. Troops identifying as transgender would have to wear the uniform associated with their biological sex and would not be permitted to use facilities associated with their desired sex.

The new policy forbade individuals who have transitioned genders from serving in the military or joining the military.

When Trump announced the policy in 2017, a theology professor at the Catholic University of America said it was the “right decision.”

Those who identify as transgender are “people made in God's image, and they deserve our compassion, and they deserve to be treated with dignity, but that doesn't mean that they are fit for combat in the defense of a nation,” Dr. Chad Pecknold told CNA.

“Pope Francis is famous for his stress upon dialogue, and his non-judgmental approach with respect to the dignity of every person,” he said. “But the Holy Father has also been crystal clear that ‘gender theory’ represents a burning threat to humanity, starkly describing it as a ‘global ideological war on marriage’.”

Critics question ‘Equality Act’ exclusion of religious freedom

Washington D.C., Mar 14, 2019 / 05:08 pm (CNA).- Federal legislation purporting to guarantee equality explicitly rejects religious freedom protections and would open the gates to anti-discrimination lawsuits against religious believers and institutions who disagree with the bill’s broad view of LGBT discrimination, critics said.

Kristen Waggoner, senior vice president of Alliance Defending Freedom's U.S. legal division, said the proposed Equality Act, reintroduced into the House of Representatives on March 13, would undermine “the fundamental freedoms of speech, religion, and conscience that the First Amendment guarantees for every citizen.”

She said “disagreement on important matters such as marriage and human sexuality is not discrimination.”

The Equality Act would add anti-discrimination protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to existing protections for race, color, national origin, sex, disability and religion.

Waggoner compared it to similar state and local laws that would “force Americans to participate in events and speak messages that violate their core beliefs.”

About 20 states have such legislation. Besides combating mistreatment of self-identified LGBT persons, they have been invoked to shut down Catholic adoption agencies that only place children with a mother and a father or to compel people working in the wedding industry, like florists, photographers and bakers, to provide their services for same-sex ceremonies.

Critics have argued that the concepts of sexual orientation and gender identity are too broad and will lead to rejecting appropriate recognition of difference between the sexes or differences between married heterosexual couples and other couples.

The legislation could endanger religious protections, particularly for those who believe marriage to be the union of one man and one woman. While U.S. law has historically allowed for broad religious freedom protections, those who disagree with same-sex marriage could be viewed as “discriminating” against a same-sex couple.

Though the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed with overwhelming support, such protections have recently drawn strong opposition from some lawmakers, pro-abortion access groups and LGBT advocates who contend they interfere with basic rights.

As drafted, the Equality Act explicitly removes the ability under RFRA to cite religious freedom as a defense against discrimination claims.

Tim Schulz, president of 1st Amendment Partnership, told the Deseret News that if the Equality Act becomes law, religiously affiliated schools and other faith-based organizations could face lawsuits over policies on self-identified LGBT students, customers or employees.

“There would be an effort to punitively sue them into oblivion,” he said.

The American Civil Liberties Union, a backer of the bill, said the legislation “clarifies that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act cannot be used in civil rights contexts, prohibiting religious liberty — which is a core American value — from being used as a license to discriminate.”

The ACLU has long opposed Catholic hospitals that act according to Catholic ethics and refuse to provide “reproductive health” services including abortion and sterilization. In California, the legal group filed a lawsuit against a Catholic hospital for refusing an elective hysterectomy to a woman who identifies as a man and who sought the procedure as part of her putative sex reassignment.

It has also sided with efforts targeting institutions and small businesses that do not recognize same-sex unions as marriages. ACLU lawyers have backed a lawsuit against a Washington State florist who declined to serve a same-sex ceremony, while the group has tried to block Michigan state agencies’ cooperation with Catholic adoption and foster agencies.

Waggoner was critical of the Equality Act and predicted negative consequences if it becomes law.

“Americans simply deserve better than the profound inequality proposed by this intolerant, deceptively titled legislation,” she said.

“Our laws should respect the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms of every citizen, but the so-called ‘Equality Act’ fails to meet this basic standard,” Waggoner added. “It would undermine women’s equality and force women and girls to share private, intimate spaces with men who identify as female, in addition to denying women fair competition in sports.”

The proposed law would apply not just to employment, but other areas like housing, jury duty, credit, and education. It bars discrimination in retail stores, emergency shelters, banks, transit and pharmacies, among others. It would also specify facility access for self-identified transgender persons, such as access to male and female bathrooms.

David Cicilline, D-R.I., is the bill’s main sponsor in the House, NBC News reports. As of March 13, the bill had 239 co-sponsors in the House.

“In most states in this country, a gay couple can be married on Saturday, post their wedding photos to Instagram on Sunday, and lose their jobs or get kicked out of their apartments on Monday just because of who they are,” he charged. “We are reintroducing the Equality Act in order to fix this.”

U.S. Sen. Susan Collins is the only Republican to back the bill, though she was one of four currently serving Republican Senators to back similar anti-discrimination categories in a 2013 employment bill.

The legislation’s 161 corporate sponsors include PayPal, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. Overall they have a combined revenue of $3.7 trillion, CNBC reported March 8.

Leaders with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have not yet commented on the Equality Act. However, in the past they have criticized the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would bar actions deemed to be employment discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

In May 2010, the bishops said the act “could be used to punish as discrimination what the Catholic Church teaches.” While they called for a “comprehensive religious exemption” to such a bill, there could be “government retaliation” for institutions that rely on such exemptions. Without strong protections, it would be applied “to jeopardize our religious freedom to live our faith and moral tenets in today's society,” they said.

The bishops rejected “every sign of unjust discrimination,” while also stating that Catholic teaching cannot be equated with unjust discrimination.

Leading bishops criticized the Employment Non-Discrimination Act in an Oct. 31, 2013 letter to the U.S. Senate, saying it does not advance “authentic non-discrimination.” They warned that the bill’s vague definition of sexual orientation does not distinguish between homosexual “status” and “conduct.” Its concept of “gender identity” rejects the “biological basis of gender” and would give force of law to a view of gender as “nothing more than a social construct or social psychosocial reality.”

CNA investigations have found close to $10 million in spending that targets religious freedom protection, including funding for ACLU projects. Major backers of the campaign include the Ford Foundation, which gives out some $500 million in grants annually, as well as the Arcus Foundation, an LGBT advocacy group that also funds groups that reject historic Christian ethics on LGBT issues. The network of funded groups tends to argue that religious freedoms are too broad if they exempt objectors to “reproductive rights” and LGBT political and legal concerns.

FDA clamps down on sale of unapproved mail-order abortion pills

Washington D.C., Mar 14, 2019 / 04:01 pm (CNA).- As part of a wide-reaching crackdown on the online sale of illegal drugs, the US Food and Drug Administration has warned several online providers of abortion-inducing medications to stop the sale of unapproved abortion pills.

The FDA sent last week a letter to Rablon, an online pharmacy network, and Aid Access, requesting they immediately desist selling unapproved versions of the abortion drugs mifepristone and misoprostol online.

According to the FDA warning letter, the "sale of misbranded and unapproved new drugs poses an inherent risk to consumers who purchase those products."

"Drugs that have circumvented regulatory safeguards may be contaminated; counterfeit, contain varying amounts of active ingredients, or contain different ingredients altogether," the letter states.

Mifepristone and misoprostol are two drugs taken together to carry out a medical abortion. They work by inducing miscarriage in pregnancies before 10 weeks.

FDA-approved versions of the drugs have been available to US consumers since 2000, but may only be prescribed by a certified health care provider in a hospital, clinic, or medical office setting. They may not be sold online or in a retail pharmacy.

The health care provider must inform patients about the serious risks associated with use of the medications, and sign a waiver certifying the patient has access to emergency care or a surgical abortion in the case of complication.

These requirements are part of an FDA risk mitigation program called REMS, which is used for all higher-risk medications.

The letter to Aid Access stated that the FDA-approved version of mifepristone, called "Mifeprex," is under the REMS program because "the drug carries a risk of serious or even life-threatening adverse effects, including serious and sometimes fatal infections and prolonged heavy bleeding, which may be a sign of incomplete abortion or other complications."

Failure by the websites to correct the violations outlined, the FDA stated, could result in "regulatory action, including seizure or injunction, without further notice."

Aid Access is a website that says it offers abortion-inducing drugs to healthy women who are nine weeks pregnant or less.

If women qualify for the pills through online consultations, Aid Access writes them prescriptions for the two drugs. These prescriptions are filled at a pharmacy in India, which mails the drugs to women in the U.S. The service costs $95, and the website notes that financial aid is available.

Rablon is an online pharmacy network owning at least 87 websites, with sites such as AbortionPillRx.com and AbortPregnancy.com offering mail-order access to mifepristone and misoprostol.