Editor’s note: This story has been updated. Please see below the original text.
United States senators, fighting over a crucial amendment that is annually attached as a rider to federal spending provisions, are holding up the passage of a human trafficking bill they all agree should get passed. The legislation and developing imbroglio will test if this Congress can agree on anything, whether controversial, partisan, or, in this case, an effort nearly all lawmakers are on the same page about.
Though they agree on the effort to combat this heinous crime, which affects an estimated 17,500 foreign nationals trafficked into the country every year, the political fight that has developed and derailed the bill at its outset revolves around one of the most divisive and controversial issues in this country: abortion, which, as we all know, has been resolved so smoothly that this is surely an encouraging sign to everyone that passage is imminent.
The political punching surrounds language inserted into the bill after passage in committee. The fighting erupted this week as the bill came to the Senate floor for debate over Democrats’ objection to provisions similar to the Hyde Amendment that were included. Hyde is a measure that bars federal funds to pay for abortions except in cases of rape or incest. It was, not too surprisingly, sponsored by a man and passed by the House of Representatives in 1976, marking a first legislative victory for the pro-life movement following the striking down of anti-abortion laws after the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973.
The Democrats claim they were unaware the provisions were included, while Republican leaders fired back that they were surprised the other side didn’t know and that the text was made public after passage in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The Polaris Project, a trafficking advocacy and support organization, has found that 80 percent of transnational victims are women or girls, 70 percent are trafficked into the commercial sex industry and 50 percent of victims are children. These numbers could also be decimated by true immigration reform, since many victims are who are trafficked and abused are made to feel powerless or scared by their captors and threatened into not alerting authorities because of their immigration status.
And the problem doesn’t only come from overseas. If the Senate really aims to better protect the 244,000 child trafficking victims within this country, lawmakers need to step up and stop blaming each other. Just get it done.
The rider attached to the bill in a section of the Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking Act would restrict the use of federal money to pay for abortions, even for victims of human trafficking who have been sold into the commercial sex industry.
Specifically, Democrats have objected to its inclusion to the new Domestic Trafficking Victims’ Fund to pay for abortions. Sadly Hyde, and its legacy of outdated and misogynistic measures are turning up again in the debate. The bill has bipartisan support. But following unanimous passage in the committee last month and as debate was to begin, it has been derailed by political scorekeeping on both sides.
Debate over the inclusion of this language into the well-intentioned human trafficking bill is anathema to the bill’s stated goals. When the body bends to include Hyde Amendment language to prohibit federal spending on abortions, but then claims to want to protect individuals with an updated anti-trafficking law, the Senate is operating at cross-purposes.
The resulting blame game and delay of the bill’s passage amounts to a slap in the face of women, their reproductive rights and stinks of continued male dominance over the longstanding debate over what choices women should be allowed to make regarding their own bodies.
Getting rid of the Hyde Amendment once and for all is a good idea, though probably impossible in the current political climate, but it would go far in better protecting women’s reproductive rights. And if the goal is really to protect women and victims of trafficking, senators need to immediately stop politicizing the issue because it won’t help protect anyone — or produce any meaningful progress on this critical issue.
UPDATE, March 17, 2:53 p.m. After Democrats used the filibuster this week to stall and the bill fell five votes short of 60 needed, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell incredibly has now tied the Loretta Lynch’s confirmation as U.S. Attorney General to the Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking Act. McConnell said this week he will not bring the confirmation vote to the to the floor unless Democrats drop opposition to the abortion language contained within the bill.
The Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST) responded with a letter signed by more than 80 other organizations expressing disappointment an agreement on the bill, which had bipartisan support
just two weeks ago, could not be reached.
The letter urged the chamber to take action to pass it and noted, “The work to combat modern slavery and human trafficking has been an example of Congress’s ability to put partisanship aside in the interest of tackling a difficult and seemingly intractable problem. For these reasons, we urge all members of the Senate to turn away from this divisive debate and find a bipartisan approach to this new initiative to protect and serve the needs of survivors.
Noah Zuss is a reporter for TheBlot Magazine.