Madolline Gourley caused an international outcry when she said a US customs officer asked her if she had recently had an abortion while traveling through Los Angeles two months ago.
Now the agency denies its claim, insisting that the officer only asked if she had suffered a pregnancy loss — which it says is standard procedure for any woman detained at a border crossing.
“CBP denies any wrongdoing,” an agency spokesperson told The Daily Beast. “The officer acted with integrity, respect, professionalism and in accordance with U.S. law and regulation.”
The agency launched an internal investigation into the officer in July after Gourley, a 32-year-old web editor from Australia, made public the story of her detention at Los Angeles International Airport. Gourley told the guard she was traveling through the airport on her way to Montreal when border officials at the airports spotted her case and detained her for additional questioning.
Gourley says officers asked her about her finances, her employment history and, to her surprise, whether she was pregnant or had recently had an abortion.
“My first thought was, ‘Why are you asking that?'” Gourley told The Daily Beast. “Asking that of someone is inappropriate at first, but it was just really bizarre given the confluence of circumstances.”
But an agency spokesperson said the officer involved asked Gourley if she had recently lost a pregnancy — something he said the agency is required to ask of anyone held in its detention, no matter how long.
The spokesperson pointed to a directive issued last November on the care of “pregnant, postpartum, nursing and infants in custody”.
The directive states that individuals may require special treatment in these circumstances, and that border officials may “consider all available information in the context of their operations (including observation, self-report, self-referral and referral by relatives or companions)” in determining whether detainees fall into these categories. The word “abortion” does not appear in the document; the examples given for “pregnancy loss” are stillbirths and miscarriages.
The spokesperson said agents are required to complete a digital questionnaire for anyone denied entry into the US and detained. Part of the questionnaire requires officers to confirm whether the detainee is a woman of childbearing age and whether she was pregnant or had a recent pregnancy loss. He added that the policy was recently introduced amid concerns for the health of the “thousands and thousands” of women detained at the US border.
“CBP officials are required to ask these questions for the CBP registration systems,” the spokesperson told The Daily Beast, adding later, “It’s for the health and well-being of the traveler.”
Gourley claims the officer specifically asked her if she had an abortion recently, noting that none of the officers asked her about any other health issues.
“If they’re concerned about my health and well-being while being held in airports, why didn’t they ask if I had epilepsy or diabetes?” she said. “Because they’re all pretty major health issues that can flare up when you’re stressed.”
She added in an email: “I think if the DPA were serious about the health of women in their care, they would ask more questions instead of just focusing on questions about the birth of a baby.” child.”
The CBP spokesperson said officers are asking “general medical care questions” of all travelers in temporary detention, such as whether the traveler is taking medication, whether they need medication, or whether they are under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Gourley said she later spoke at length with an investigator from the DPA’s Office of Professional Responsibility, who emailed her after her story went viral. Although the researcher promised to contact her within a week, Gourley said, she had not received an update on the study for nearly a month. She said she had finally reached out to the head of the office, who apologized for the delay and told her to expect a reply soon.
“I wasn’t expecting much, but I might have expected some empathy or compassion from her about how I was being treated.”
— Madolline Gourley
On September 10, Gourley got her reply: an email from the original investigator telling her only, “The investigation is complete.” If she wanted more information about her case, the investigator said in previous emails, she would have to file a FOIA request.
“I wasn’t expecting much, but I might have expected some empathy or compassion from her about how I was being treated,” Gourley said. “I thought she would give a few sentences about what she found.”
In previous emails reviewed by The Daily Beast, the researcher declined to tell Gourley exactly why she was denied entry, saying only that she “violated one or more terms of the visa waiver program” – a way for residents from participating countries to travel to the US without a visa. (The program prohibits entering into any form of employment or receiving compensation for services in the US; Gourley told agents she spent several months in the US earlier this year as a cat sitter in exchange for a place to stay.)
The CBP spokesperson told The Daily Beast that findings from administrative complaints are subject to restrictions under the Privacy Act, a federal law that restricts the disclosure of personal information, and confirmed that personal travel information could only be accessed through a FOIA request. But he also confirmed that the visa waiver program prohibits any nanny, house sitter or childcare in exchange for room and board.
“Under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP), applicants are not allowed to take any form of employment or receive compensation for services rendered,” he said in an emailed statement. “Travelers engaged in unauthorized employment in the US are subject to refusal of entry under the VWP under 8CFR 217.4(a)(1) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.”
Gourley says she has filed a complaint with the Inspector General’s Office and is seeking an independent assessment of the situation.
“And an apology would be nice,” she added. “But I never see that happening.”