The religious right has infiltrated the office of Health and Human Services, and reproductive rights are the first target
By Tessa Stuart
October 24, 2018
It was dusk on a Friday in March 2017, and the women’s health clinic in San Antonio was mostly deserted, except for a nurse finishing some end-of-the-week paperwork, when the phone rang. The man on the other end of the line introduced himself as Dr. Meyerstein with the Office of Refugee Resettlement in Washington, D.C., the agency charged with the temporary care of children apprehended while crossing the border alone.
Earlier that day, the clinic had given a 17-year-old girl the first dose of a medication abortion — a regimen that requires two sets of pills to be taken at least 24 but no more than 48 hours apart. Meyerstein wanted to know what would happen if the girl didn’t take her second dose.
The nurse knew the patient he was asking about: petite, shy, brown hair and a face that looked younger than the age on her chart. A chaperone from the government-funded shelter where she was being held accompanied her to the appointment.
The clinic had rules protecting patient privacy, the nurse said, but she offered some general information about the risks any patient would face if she didn’t take the rest of her pills: deadly infection; serious, prolonged bleeding; and the possibility of birth defects if the pregnancy progressed.
If he wanted more information about the risks, she said, he could find it on the FDA’s website. She hung up the phone, but Meyerstein called a second time. And a third. Increasingly frantic, he told her that questions were being asked about the safety and legality of the treatment the girl had received that day.
His inquiries struck the nurse as strange and belying an alarming level of ignorance for someone who claimed to have a medical degree. Medication abortions are extremely common in the United States, and safe: Fewer than one-quarter of one percent of patients experience any kind of major complication. As for the legality, the patient had obtained a judge’s approval, as Texas law requires any underage girl without her parent’s permission to do before making an appointment.
When she got home, the nurse Googled to see if a Dr. Shaanan Meyerstein even existed at ORR. As long as she’d worked at the clinic it had been a target of anti-abortion activists, and it occurred to her that this man might be one of them, just pretending to work for the government.
She wasn’t entirely wrong. Meyerstein was a civil servant who had worked for ORR’s unaccompanied-minor program since the Obama administration, but depositions and internal documents show he was acting on orders from a tight group of pro-life crusaders recently installed in the top ranks of ORR’s parent agency, the Department of Health and Human Services: Maggie Wynne, counselor to the secretary of HHS; Matt Bowman, a lawyer in their Office of the General Counsel; and Scott Lloyd, the man recently tapped to helm ORR.