By Gabrielle Simeck ’18
This past week in Congress, progress on new sex-trafficking legislation stalled. Bill S140 sponsored by Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) previously garnered support from both sides of the aisle in committee. The proposed legislation would raise money for a fund benefiting sex-trafficking victims using fees assessed to sexual predators. However, this initial bi-partisan support eroded when senators took a second look at the bill.
At first glance, the bill looks like a step in the right direction, by providing support for sex-trafficking victims without allocating federal funding for a new program. By assessing fees to sexual predators and increasing fines, senators aim to create a fund to help sex-trafficking victims recover and re-adjust to daily life. However, the legislation involves some politically-charged semantics. An amendment to the bill includes an anti-abortion condition: money raised from the fund cannot be used to pay for abortions. Senate Republicans feel that the language has no political edge, arguing the amendment is simply a continuation of the Hyde Act.
The Hyde Act, passed three years after Roe v. Wade (1973), was part of a conservative movement to reign in abortions and work around the Supreme Court decision supporting women’s ability to choose. The legislation’s sponsor, Congressman Henry J. Hyde, stated during Congressional debate over the legislation in 1977, “I would certainly like to prevent, if I could legally, anybody having an abortion: a rich woman, a middle class woman, or a poor woman. Unfortunately, the only vehicle available is the [Medicaid] bill.” Since its initial passage in 1976, Congress has renewed the Hyde Act each year, barring the appropriation of Medicaid funds to pay for abortions. Certain amendments to the act have been passed over the years including an exception for pregnancy that would threaten the life of the woman and in cases of rape and incest. However, the Hyde Act’s restrictions on Medicaid, at least from the point of view of liberal activists, effectively reduces lower-income and minority women’s ability to have abortion procedures and forces women to carry pregnancies to term. These barriers can reinforce the cycle of poverty. A new study conducted by researchers at the University of California, San Francisco supports this conclusion. The study reported that women who wanted, but were unable to receive abortions were three times more likely to live below the poverty line 2 years later. Incorporating the Hyde Amendment into sex-trafficking legislation would pose economic problems for victims of sex-trafficking which many survivors are unable to bear.
In addition to economic costs, the incorporation of the Hyde Amendment into sex trafficking legislation would force victims to navigate through a series of bureaucratic hoops to prove they were raped in order to secure funds for abortions. The prolonged bureaucratic process ignores the very different set of complications with regard to pregnancies for survivors of sex-trafficking. A new study conducted by the Loyola University Chicago School of Law surveyed groups of sex-trafficking victims. 75% of women surveyed reported they had become pregnant while in the trafficking system, and 20% of women reported becoming pregnant 5 or more times. This study is one of many that indicate the higher pregnancy rate in sex-trafficking survivors than in the general population. The inclusion of the Hyde Amendment unfairly complicates the lives of recovering sex-trafficking victims.
Even aside from economic and social objections, the Hyde Amendment’s connection to the bill is not as clear cut as many conservative senators make it out to be. The Hyde Act applies only to federal spending. The new sex-trafficking bill, however, finances a fund using fees and fines. For many Democrats, the inclusion of Hyde-like language represents an extension, not a continuation, of previous legislation.
Stuck in a legislative impasse, the future of the new sex-trafficking bill is unclear. Democrats are unwilling to support the bill in its current form and are pressuring conservative senators to drop the abortion-language, but Republicans are unwilling to compromise in their language choices. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) said during an interview with NPR News, “the young women who are being sexually trafficked now and mistreated are not going to be fine. It’s disgraceful what the Democrats are doing, and they should be ashamed.” Though Sen. McCain’s frustration is understandable, his statement serves to only further the political divide. It’s a rare enough occasion when both parties in Congress agree on an issue. Instead of focusing on how to drag in politics, our elected leaders should concentrate their efforts on passing legislation that supports their mutual goals.