Who opposes an anti-trafficking law?

Culture war posturing in the House over women's health services pits Catholic bishops against the White House

Topics: Republicans, Catholic Bishops, Barack Obama, Sex trafficking, Congress, Violence Against Women Act,

Who opposes an anti-trafficking law? (Credit: AP/Charles Dharapak/Kevin Lamarque/Salon)

For the first time ever, the nation’s signature law to combat sex and labor trafficking has fallen victim to the politics of abortion and contraception for trafficking survivors — and an ongoing conflict between Catholic bishops and the Obama administration.

The Trafficking Victims and Protection Act, which provides both enforcement tools and services on behalf of trafficking victims, has been unanimously renewed by Congress three times since its passage in 2000 under Bill Clinton. But in September 2011, it expired for the first time over a standoff on reproductive politics. And now its fate is linked to the Violence Against Women Act, with the anti-trafficking legislation having passed the Senate as an amendment to VAWA.

The anti-domestic violence bill’s stalled, politicized path has sucked up far more media oxygen than the trafficking provision, but both bills were relatively uncontroversial in the Senate, only to fall prey to culture war posturing in the House. For VAWA, the fault line has been whether Native American tribal courts could prosecute non-Indian abusers and over enhanced LGBT protections. For TVPA, it’s whether the federal government should give preference for grants to organizations that provide or refer for “the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care” (read: not the Catholic Church, which has already been tussling with the Obama administration over insurance coverage of birth control).

At the center of the dispute is Rep. Chris Smith, the New Jersey congressman who was an original author of TVPA in 2000 — an embodiment of the unusual bridges the anti-trafficking movement has built between conservative Christians, who view it as a sexual morality issue, and liberal supporters of human rights. In cases of rape, incest or life endangerment, TVPA funds can be used for abortion, and many victims of trafficking have had limited or no access to any form of healthcare, including contraception.

Around the time TVPA was scheduled to be renewed, Smith became outraged to learn the Obama administration had denied the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops a grant for services to sex trafficking victims. And he introduced a whole new anti-trafficking bill that included a “conscience clause” for the first time, allowing religious organizations to refuse services on religious grounds, and stripping the Department of Health and Human Services from any authority or funding for trafficking victims at all.

You Might Also Like

“Things got frozen in the House after the conscience clause issue came up,” said Cory Smith, the legal and policy counsel for the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking, a coalition of groups that has taken the lead on this bill. “Things were moving along quickly with the original bill that Chris Smith had introduced. It had reported unanimously out of committee. Once [the conscience clause] happened, things ground to a halt. There was apprehension about getting involved in the politics for everyone else.”

Under the Bush administration, the USCCB had been receiving funding since 2006 to subcontract out direct services for survivors, but with an extra restriction that “subcontractors could not provide or refer for abortion services or contraceptive materials for our clients pursuant to this contract,” according to court documents for a lawsuit the ACLU of Massachusetts filed over the grant. The Obama administration did defend that decision in court, but changed its own policy.

The ACLU had argued that the federal funding, between $2.5 million and $3.5 million administered through HHS, violated the First Amendment by allowing the bishops to “impose religiously based restrictions on the expenditure in taxpayer funds.” They won in a lower court, but last month the 1st Circuit dismissed the bishops’ appeal on the grounds that it was moot, because the contract had expired and the new policy didn’t violate the establishment clause. That’s because HHS had begun explicitly giving preference to groups that would refer victims to the full range of women’s health services.

They may have won the support of the courts, but they lost Chris Smith. In December 2011, Smith held hearings to excoriate the Obama administration for leaving out the USCCB in the latest grant process. “In what can only be described as an unconscionable abuse of power, the Obama administration has engaged in what amounts to bid rigging, denying taxpayer funds to a demonstrably superior organization,” Smith said in one hearing, citing higher internal scores for the USCCB compared to two other groups that did get funding contracts.

By the end of the last Congress, the conscience clause-inclusive bill had only garnered what Cory Smith described as “a really anemic number of Republicans” as co-sponsors — 16 — and the session ended without a new TVPA. The anti-trafficking coalition doesn’t take a position on the conscience clause, but it has a policy of not supporting legislation unless it’s bipartisan, so it formally objects to the new Chris Smith bill.

“Trafficking enforcement and services did not come to an end on Sept. 30, 2011,” Cory Smith explained, “but the more time goes by the more it puts into jeopardy the funding for trafficking survivors.”

Last September, President Obama put some pressure on the issue in a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, saying, “Congress should renew the Trafficking Victims Protection Act. Whether you are a conservative or a liberal, Democrat or Republican, this is a no-brainer. This is something we should all agree on. We need to get that done.”

Marco Rubio, another Republican champion of the bill, told CQ before the Senate vote that “there are a few groups concerned about some of the language in there,” which he called “legitimate concerns,” but that “we can work through it.” He was right, at least as far as the Senate version, sans conscience clause, went: It passed 93-5. The question is, will the House follow suit, or will Rep. Smith and his allies successfully reignite another battle over abortion and contraception services for rape victims.

Irin Carmon

Irin Carmon is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @irincarmon or email her at icarmon@salon.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>