A bipartisan bill aimed at aiding victims of human trafficking is in peril now that Democrats have learned it contains an anti-choice provision to restrict funding for abortion. Democratic lawmakers say they were not aware of the abortion-related language and have accused Republicans of sneaking it in.
The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015, which would establish a fund to raise money for victims from the fees charged to traffickers, wasn’t supposed to be controversial. It has supporters on both sides of the aisle and easily passed the House earlier this year. Both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) have urged members of their parties to support the legislation.
But this week, top Democrats learned that the bill includes language modeled after the Hyde Amendment, which restricts public funding for abortion procedures. The new fund created for trafficking victims would be subject to the same restrictions that currently prevent the public Medicaid program from using federal dollars to finance abortion coverage.
For years, abortion rights supporters have been working to repeal the decades-old Hyde Amendment, which disproportionately targets low-income women who rely on Medicaid for their insurance. Even though advocating for taxpayer funding for abortion has historically been politically risky, several members of Congress have recently signed on to the effort to roll back the restrictions. An expansion of Hyde’s coverage ban is the last thing that abortion rights groups want to see.
Adam Jentleson, a spokesman for Reid’s office, said the proposed language in the trafficking bill would actually go beyond Hyde’s current scope by including fees and fines, instead of just taxpayer funds. He believes that “could lead to a dramatic expansion of abortion restrictions in future years.”
Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), who recently introduced sweeping pro-choice legislation to fight back against a wave of attacks on women’s health, said her Republican colleagues “are trying to pull a fast one here on the human trafficking bill.” Murray says she will not support the bill as it is currently written.
Reproductive rights groups have also harshly criticized the abortion provision in the bill, accusing Republicans of playing politics with the vulnerable victims of human trafficking. They point out that victims often need access to abortion services because they have been subject to sexual violence, so a fund designed to help them shouldn’t cut off resources related to abortion.
“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.
“It’s no secret that some politicians want to ban all abortion in the United States. Even in a bill designed to support survivors of human trafficking, they press for coverage bans that make abortion unaffordable,” Jessica González-Rojas, the executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, added.
Across the aisle, Republicans aren’t sympathetic to their colleagues’ concerns. Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the primary sponsor of the legislation, has dismissed Democrats’ criticism, saying they always knew what was included in his bill and he doesn’t understand why it’s creating an issue now. He says there’s nothing new about the Hyde Amendment-style language.
Progressive lawmakers, meanwhile, are frustrated that the emerging conflict over the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act could hamper several different issues they’re working to advance.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) has been attempting to attach a measure onto the larger bill that would improve services for LGBT youth, who are particularly vulnerable to being trafficked. The derailment of the legislation because of the abortion language would also stall his Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act.
Plus, GOP lawmakers like Sens. James Inhofe (R-OK) and David Vitter (R-LA) have attempted to attach amendments to the bipartisan bill that would roll back protections for immigrant children. Inhofe has a record of opposing human trafficking bills.
“Unfortunately, Republicans are committed to turning a bipartisan bill into a political fight,” Reid said Wednesday on the Senate floor. “I hope my Republican friends will choose to do the right thing and take this out of the legislation and pass this bill without any gimmicks.”