Commentary Human Rights

Bishops and House Republicans Seeking to Deny Essential Services to Victims of Sex Trafficking

Yasmin Vafa

To argue that contraception, condoms, or abortion cannot be referred to or provided to young girls and women who have been sexually brutalized beyond imagination is an extreme point of view. These victims deserve more from us.

A recent New York Times editorial brings to light the fascinating overlap between the issues of domestic minor sex trafficking and women’s reproductive health and services. In it are allusions to several key amendments to the current House version of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), the major federal statute designed to protect and support victims of human trafficking. Unlike the previous version introduced in the House on August 30, 2011, which was similar to a bill authored by Senators Wyden and Leahy in the Senate, the current bill now expressly de-funds the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and inserts a conscience clause allowing providers to deny sex trafficking victims access to essential services such as contraceptives, condoms, and abortion referrals or services.

HHS is the federal agency that administers funding to trafficking victims by making grants to various organizations to provide services for victims of human trafficking, many of whom have suffered countless and brutal instances of sexual assault and rape at the hands of traffickers and purchasers. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was one such organization that received funds from the U.S. Government through HHS, not to service victims directly but to provide sub-grants to other nonprofits and organizations that did. 

However, when disbursing its funds to various entities, the Conference expressly forbade recipients from using the funds to refer victims for contraceptives, condoms, abortion or other reproductive health services. This practice went on for years until the ACLU challenged it in January 2009. The legal challenge was brought on First Amendment grounds arguing that the Government cannot award contracts to organizations that deny needed services to victims of trafficking based on the organization’s own religious beliefs. Last week the Federal District Court hearing the case issued its ruling in favor of the ACLU finding that “[t]his case is about the limits of the government’s ability to delegate to a religious institution the right to use taxpayer money to impose its beliefs on others (who may or may not share them).” 

The TPVA bill in the House effectively seeks to punish HHS and Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for the agency’s refusal to award new contracts to the Conference of Catholic Bishops due to its prohibition against providing trafficking victims certain services based on its religious beliefs. The bill removes Secretary Sebelius from the Interagency Task Force to Monitor and Combat Trafficking and transfers all of her duties to either the Attorney General or the Secretary of Homeland Security, depending on the specific duty. Moreover, it diverts all funding from HHS to the Department of Justice, an agency that has no ability to administer any services for victims beyond enforcement and prosecutorial services. Additionally, and inexplicably, the bill fails to include a provision from the previously-introduced House version that would provide benefits and services for non-immigrant, domestic victims of trafficking. 

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The final and most troubling amendment in the House bill is the addition of a conscience clause, which hinders victims’ access to basic and essential health services. The clause is similar to the one contained in the controversial Blunt bill which was defeated by a narrow margin in the Senate early March. The clause “prohibits an organization, including a faith-based organization, that is otherwise eligible to receive assistance under any specified federal laws from being: (1) required, as a condition of receiving such assistance, to endorse, utilize, provide, make a referral to, become integrated with, or otherwise participate in any program, project, or activity to which the organization has a religious or moral objection; or (2) discriminated against in the solicitation or issuance of grants, contracts, cooperative agreements, or other federal funding under such laws for refusing to meet any such requirements.” 

Essentially, this bill would take the individual right of refusal and extend it to organizations, meaning that trafficking service providers could effectively deny services often deemed necessary for victims of sexual assault. And like some of the conscience clause language we have seen as of late, the House bill has no exception in the case of rape or incest.  Pretty extreme when you consider that much of the population TVPA seeks to serve is essentially a population of rape victims.  It is also worth noting that these amendments make the House bill drastically different from the version drafted in the Senate, making it increasingly difficult to reauthorize such an essential piece of legislation.

To engage in such an extreme political battle in the body of the TVPA, the act designed to protect and care for these victims, is completely and utterly inappropriate. To argue that contraception, condoms, or abortion cannot be referred to or provided to young girls and women who have been sexually brutalized beyond imagination, is an extreme point of view when you consider a recent ABC News-Washington Post poll shows 57 percent of Americans support abortion rights and 81percent support abortion rights in the case of rape. Many of these victims are girls in their teens who were sold several times a day, seven days a week, for years at a time. How can one justify the denial of reproductive health services to these victims? How can one rationalize robbing them of the option to what have long been regarded as basic health services and protections, especially when often such services are keys to them moving on with their lives? 

These victims deserve more from us. We owe it to them to provide appropriate protection and services taking into account the complex trauma they have endured. When it comes to victims of sexual violence and repeated rape, the debate over access to basic reproductive health services is one that ought not to be played out in the legislation promising to protect the very victims it hurts.

News Law and Policy

Amendments to Senate Trafficking Bill Pose New Problems for Victims, Advocates Say

Emily Crockett

The Senate passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act in a 99-0 vote late last week, after a protracted, bitter debate over a provision restricting abortion care for underage sex trafficking victims. But some reproductive rights advocates say that the bipartisan compromise is nothing to celebrate.

The Senate passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA) in a 99-0 vote late last week, after a protracted, bitter debate over a provision restricting abortion care for underage sex trafficking victims.

Some reproductive rights advocates say that the bipartisan compromise is nothing to celebrate—that there are major problems not just with the underlying bill and its problematic compromise on abortion, but also with some of its new amendments.

Advocates for sex workers and homeless youth, for example, say the JVTA focuses too much on expanding law enforcement and too little on funding services for young people who are vulnerable to exploitation. The law is also large and unwieldy, they say, with lots of different ideas thrown into the mix that may not be carefully thought out or tested.

“It’s packaged as the anti-trafficking bill of the year,” Kate D’Adamo, national policy advocate at the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project, told Rewire. “It makes it really difficult to advocate for thoughtful anti-trafficking work when everything is being lumped together—the good, the bad, and the very, very, ugly.”

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One amendment in particular could prove very, very ugly for both trafficking victims and Internet freedom, advocates fear.

The JVTA contains a version of the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation (SAVE) Act, which civil liberties and free speech advocates oppose because they say it would wrongly target web hosts and publishers for the criminal activity of their users by expanding the definition of trafficking to include advertising.

“In general, the owners of websites and online publications cannot be held criminally liable for the things that random people post,” Elizabeth Nolan Brown reports at Reason. “Under the new rules, however, these entities could be charged as sex traffickers if it turns out any trafficking victims are advertised on the site.”

It’s not clear whether the law would be interpreted that way. But according to Emma Llanso at the Center for Democracy and Technology, the mere threat that it could be creates a “chilling effect” that would make hosts less willing to post user content, or even to screen for criminal activity.

The bill’s sponsors are interested in shutting down sites like, but D’Adamo notes that many youth don’t advertise there. They post on Facebook or Twitter. That means the SAVE Act could threaten the most popular and ubiquitous social media hubs with crippling lawsuits, she says, and make sex work more dangerous for people who usually advertise there.

“It absolutely marginalizes people and forces them into street-based work,” D’Adamo said.

It’s also “shocking” that lawmakers would do it this way, she added, because law enforcement often depends on sites like Backpage to track people as part of their anti-trafficking work.

Some other major amendments to the bill aim to make it more victim-focused, and D’Adamo says that a few seem likely to succeed. One provision could help weaken the parental rights of rapists; another would allow victims to wipe their previous criminal record clean.

Another, Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s (D-MN) Stopping Exploitation Through Trafficking Act (SETT), is more complicated.

The act encourages states to pass “safe harbor” laws that aim to make sure trafficking victims are treated like victims, not criminals. But the legislation doesn’t give states specific guidelines on what those laws should entail, and the language may be too weak to fully protect youth from traumatizing encounters with law enforcement, advocates feel.

Human Trafficking Center associate Lauren Jekowsky writes that safe harbor laws at the state level “have proven to be largely ineffective in most cases due to their incompleteness, poor implementation, and lack of resources and need to be strengthened.”

SETT’s language, D’Adamo said, encourages “diversion” of youth to social services, and discourages charging or prosecution.

“But both of those happen after arrest,” she said. “So they’re still predicated on the basic trauma and violence of policing and arrest that youth experience, and that youth identify as traumatic.”

And some of these “diversion” programs, D’Adamo said, still involve mandatory detention or court appearances.

The whole process of passing the JVTA, D’Adamo said, shows that anti-trafficking legislation is
“just as politicized as anything else.”

“If you can attach an amendment to get a vote, it doesn’t matter who you harm in the process.”

CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to clarify Emma Llanso’s employer.

News Law and Policy

Human Trafficking Senate Compromise Will Deny Abortion Funding to Survivors

Emily Crockett

The compromise on the trafficking bill, which will clear the way for a confirmation vote on Loretta Lynch, was a limited victory for pro-choice advocates.

Senators announced a compromise Tuesday that would move two long-stalled legislative items: a human trafficking bill that has been embroiled in a fight over abortion restrictions, and the confirmation of Loretta Lynch to be the nation’s first Black female attorney general.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) had refused to bring Lynch’s confirmation up for a vote until the Senate passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (JVTA), despite Lynch’s undisputed qualifications and strong record on prosecuting human traffickers. The tactic enraged advocates and Black leaders, some of whom staged a hunger strike in protest.

McConnell said Tuesday that once the JVTA is passed, the Senate will move on to Lynch “in the next day or so.”

The compromise on the trafficking bill was a limited victory for pro-choice advocates. It stopped Republican efforts to expand the reach of the anti-choice Hyde Amendment, but it will have the effect of restricting abortion services for underage victims of sex trafficking.

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“This bill, and the deal reached, are a perfect example of why the so-called Hyde Amendment is bad policy and harmful to women,” Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said in a statement. “Because of the Hyde Amendment, this bill still denies the most vulnerable women necessary access to vital health services.”

Hogue noted that up to 80 percent of trafficking victims end up pregnant, often multiple times, and called it “abhorrent” that Republicans picked a fight over denying these survivors the full range of health care.

The JVTA’s lead sponsor, Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), has argued that the Hyde Amendment’s rape exception will cover underage trafficking victims who want abortion services. But research shows that this exception functions poorly in practice, with more than half of women not receiving reimbursements for eligible abortions.

The Hyde Amendment prohibits federal funding for abortion care except in cases of rape, incest, or life endangerment. The original trafficking bill mandated an unprecedented expansion of the Hyde Amendment to include private funds, which pro-choice Democrats refused to allow.

“We’re encouraged that members of the Senate understood the alarming consequences of adding these restrictions to the JVTA and fought against them,” said Jessica González-Rojas, executive director for the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

The compromise splits funding for victims’ services into two parts. A fine collected from convicted sex traffickers would no longer pay for any health-care services, instead going to things like law enforcement and legal aid for survivors. The health care needs of survivors will be paid for with community health center funds, which recently passed as part of a Medicare reform bill and are already prevented by Hyde from covering abortion services or referrals.

“We started this fight against a bill that applied Hyde to non-taxpayer dollars for the first time, and brought in no real money for trafficking survivors,” a Senate Democratic aide said. “We’re now in a much better place.”

Critics of the JVTA have pointed out that the fine on sex traffickers was unlikely to raise enough money to meaningfully help victims, that most of the money would go to unproven and possibly harmful law enforcement expansions, and that there are potential civil rights problems with the bill’s expanded definition of who can be prosecuted as a sex trafficker.

“Ultimately, this is not a win,” Kate D’Adamo, national policy advocate at the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project, told Rewire. “The strongest precedent that is set by the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act is not about Hyde or Senate confirmations. The strongest precedent is that, in the end, Congress would rather support the expansion of law enforcement than for survivors to get the services they direly need.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) proposed the compromise, and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) brokered the deal with Cornyn.

“No compromise is perfect,” Murray said Tuesday. “I believe there is more we can and must do when it comes to strengthening women’s access to quality health care.”

Klobuchar said Tuesday that her own trafficking bill, an effort to protect underage trafficking victims from being prosecuted for prostitution, will be attached as an amendment to the new JVTA.

Both anti-choice Republicans and pro-choice advocates declared victory for their side in the legislative compromise.

“The Hyde Amendment language stays in the anti-trafficking bill,” McConnell’s press office tweeted Tuesday.

“Today’s agreement prevents Hyde from being extended even further into other funding streams, and provides survivors of human trafficking with immediate access to needed health care services,” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said in a statement.