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

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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. 

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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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.