Commentary Law and Policy

In Texas, So-Called ‘Pro-Life’ Protection Doesn’t Apply to Trafficked Youth

Kwynn Gonzalez-Pons

Legislators can't claim to value the life of a child when they decide not to fund necessary support services for young trafficking survivors.

Many Texas legislators proudly stand upon their “pro-life” platform, claiming they are protecting human life through harsh restrictions on reproductive health access. But, as a whole, Texas lawmakers’ concern for vulnerable groups doesn’t extend beyond the abortion clinic—and it certainly doesn’t extend to young people hurt by sex trafficking.

Consider that Texas lawmakers recently eliminated a proposed $3 million budget allocation over two years to help trafficked minors, whom federal law automatically considers victims due to their age. This promising survivor-centered proposal, championed by state Rep. Gina Hinojosa (D-Austin) and child welfare advocates, would have provided medical services, counseling, and housing for young trafficking victims. It found early support in the House, but was removed in a closed House-Senate conference committee; Hinojosa later said she did not know why it was stripped.

We shouldn’t be surprised because Texas lawmakers have shown time and time again how the buck stops at the moment of birth—and how little they care about their constituents’ lives and health. In 2013, state legislators passed HB 2, which imposed strict regulations on abortion providers, including the requirement that “all Texas facilities performing abortions … meet hospital-like standards.” Unable to construct new facilities to meet these mandates, more than half of abortion-providing clinics closed their doors, leaving many people without critical health services. And even after the U.S. Supreme Court declared parts of HB 2 unconstitutional in 2016, Texas legislators continued their anti-choice rampage, killing bills supporting reproductive access in the 2017 event called the “Mother’s Day Massacre.”

The massacre continued later in the month with the defeat of the youth trafficking measure. The proposal went down despite a January statement from Republican Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton that “sex trafficking is one of the most heinous crimes facing our society” and Gov. Greg Abbott’s listing “stopping human trafficking” and “protecting our children” as two of his top ten issues on his election platform.

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Though it’s hard to quantify the prevalence of sex trafficking, there’s a need to fund recovery services if we go by the estimated numbers alone. The National Human Trafficking Hotline reported 670 human trafficking cases in Texas in 2016, with slightly more than a third of cases involving minors. Research findings released by the University of Texas at Austin in December 2016 presented even more troubling statistics, estimating that nearly 79,000 youth in Texas alone are victims of sex trafficking—troubling because a previous national estimate put the number of minors involved in sex trafficking in the 100,000 range with 300,000 more thought to be at risk.

Health impacts of sex trafficking can be acute or long-term, encompassing physical illnesses like sexually transmitted infections and pelvic inflammatory disease, and mental health issues such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. Additionally, victims of traumatic crimes, like sex trafficking, might partake in risky behaviors to cope, such as self-medicating with drugs or alcohol or self-harming.

Perhaps more disturbing is that although Texas law dictates that trafficked youth (under 18 years old) are victims, Texas law enforcement still arrests minors for prostitution. Housing and rehabilitative options for trafficked youth in Texas are few and far between, so young sexual trafficking survivors are often routed through the criminal justice system when the right option for both youth and their communities would be a less traumatizing, more therapeutic placement.

Minors who were trafficked and women of childbearing age bear the burden of misguided, and at times, life-threatening legislation in Texas.

Legislators cannot claim to value the life of a child when they’re treating young trafficking survivors as criminals, deciding not to fund necessary support services, or wasting taxpayer money to prop up anti-abortion laws. While Texas was busy erecting roadblocks to abortion and other reproductive health care, defending HB 2 cost the state at least $1 million, and the price tag could climb to $4 million if the state is ordered to pay the legal costs incurred by those challenging the law.

Texas legislators can’t claim to champion life at all stages. The rights to protection from harm and health care should extend to all citizens of Texas.

The good news is that there is hope. Texas legislators can take meaningful actions to allocate funding to reproductive health services, with an eye toward increasing access and affordability for all. Significant funding should also be directed into preventing children from being sexually exploited and funding treatment services for those who have already suffered. And women and survivors of domestic minor sex trafficking should play crucial roles in these legislative and funding decisions, instead of lawmakers who lack their lived experiences.

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