In what may be one of the most appalling acts of partisanship in recent history, a pending anti-human trafficking bill is now in peril after Democrats discovered that their Republican colleagues had slipped an anti-abortion provision into the legislation.
The legislation, called the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, would fine traffickers to create a fund to support victims. With strong bipartisan support, the Act easily passed out of the Judiciary Committee earlier this year. At the time, Senate Majority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas), the bill’s chief sponsor, told reporters, “Too often we see partisan politics divide Congress, but today as we move forward with a bill to eliminate human trafficking, we see that doesn’t always have to be the case. I’m pleased Republicans, Democrats, and over 200 outside organizations have come together in support of this worthy cause.”
And it looked like that might actually hold true — right up until yesterday, at least, when the Huffington Post reported that Senate Democrats “discovered that Republicans had slipped anti-abortion language into the bill.” The legislation contains “Hyde Amendment language,” which refers to riders that restrict the use of federal funds for abortion and other women’s health services.
“These provisions, my caucus did not know about,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday, as quoted in the Huffington Post article. “The bill will not come off this floor as long as that [abortion] language is in it.”
Even Democrats on the Judiciary Committee said they were unaware that the anti-abortion language had been added to the bill, leading several members to suggest they had been misled by their Republican colleagues, according to the Huffington Post.
Based on what we know, the argument that Republicans intentionally tried to deceive Democrats appears to be sound. A similar bill, without an abortion provision, was introduced in the last Congress, and as this year’s process got underway, GOP senators provided Democrats with a list of minor alterations to the bill’s language. The anti-abortion measure wasn’t on the list, and Democrats moved forward, taking Republicans at their word.
Cornyn denied his office did anything wrong and defended the anti-abortion language, claiming that it “maintain[s] the status quo” of the Hyde Amendment. In reality, it actually goes much further. While the Hyde Amendment is routinely attached to legislation that is approved on an annual basis, Cornyn’s bill would extend that period to five years, leaving the abortion restrictions in place for a much longer period with no congressional review. The bill also extends the Hyde Amendment’s restrictions beyond taxpayer dollars to private funds, as well, which would include revenue from traffickers’ fees. As such, the new fund established to help trafficking victims would be subject to the same restrictions that currently prevent Medicaid from using federal funding for abortion services for low-income women.
Civil rights groups and women’s health advocates have long decried the Hyde Amendment as an unequivocally harmful and discriminatory measure that violates the basic principles of gender equality and economic and racial justice. Leading medical organizations like the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists have also issued statements in opposition to the Hyde Amendment, warning that the funding restrictions make it more likely that women will undergo unsafe abortions.
Now, advocacy groups that support the human trafficking legislation are also urging the removal of the anti-abortion language, accusing Cornyn and his Republican colleagues of playing politics with a highly vulnerable group of women. They point out that human trafficking victims, most of whom are subject to sexual violence, often need access to abortion services, so a fund designed to help them shouldn’t cut that off.
“Human trafficking survivors, overwhelmingly young women, deserve to have all reproductive health options available to them. This move by politicians is an underhanded attempt to harm women most in need,” Kate Stewart, the vice president for public affairs at Advocates for Youth, said in a statement.
As RH Reality Check points out, the fight over the abortion rider was only one of several GOP-led efforts “to use this human trafficking debate to restrict civil rights.”
Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), citing stories about abuse in “birth tourism” industries, tried to introduce an amendment on Tuesday that would have violated the 14th Amendment by prohibiting children of parents who aren’t already citizens or lawful permanent residents to automatically become U.S. citizens.
And Republican objections to anti-discrimination protections for LGBT youth stalled another trafficking bill sponsored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), which would seek to prevent trafficking by providing more services to homeless youth who are most vulnerable to the practice.
Because apparently it’s not possible for Republicans to extend civil rights without also taking some away…