Women lose out -- again: Why the Senate's human trafficking compromise is nothing to celebrate

Senate leadership announced a deal to advance the anti-trafficking bill. Once again, women became bargaining chips

By Katie McDonough

Published April 21, 2015 8:19PM (EDT)

Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid          (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)
Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid (Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)

Senate leadership announced Tuesday that a deal had been reached over the anti-abortion language in an otherwise bipartisan anti-human trafficking bill. The agreement means that the measure will advance, and clears the way for a long delayed confirmation vote on attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch.

Majority Leader Mitch McConnell blocked the vote on Lynch in order to force action on the Justice for Victims of Human Trafficking Act after a dispute over a provision that would have expanded the Hyde Amendment stalled the process. Minority Leader Harry Reid said Tuesday that the compromise “rejects the expansion of the Hyde language... where it didn’t apply before,” according to a report from U.S. News & World Report.

“We can now say there’s a bipartisan proposal that will allow us to complete action on this important legislation so we can provide help for the victims who desperately need it.” McConnell said.

More on the specifics of the deal from Jennifer Bendery at the Huffington Post:

Under the deal announced Tuesday, the bill will create two funding streams. The first one flows from fines collected from sex traffickers, and would be used for survivor services excluding health care. This stream would not include Hyde Amendment restrictions. The second one would come from community health center funds that are already subject to the abortion limits.

The deal lets both parties walk away with a solid talking point: Democrats can celebrate that they prevented an expansion of Hyde, while Republicans can say they didn't cave on restricting abortion funds.

While disagreement over the Hyde language -- an amendment would have prohibited a victims compensation fund from being used for abortions, the first time Hyde would have applied to non-taxpayer revenue -- clouded the bill's prospects, many victims’ advocates had other issues with the bill and urged Congress to do better.

Kate D’Adamo, national policy advocate at the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project, told Emily Crockett at RH Reality Check that while she supports the provisions of the measure establishing a federal advisory council made up of trafficking survivors and expanding a federal victims support initiative, these positive elements are stuck in a “rotten apple” of a bill.

Alix Lutnick, senior research scientist with the Urban Health Program at RTI International, echoed the sentiment, telling RH Reality Check that the bill “prioritize[s] the needs of the state, prosecution, and law enforcement over the needs of people who have experienced trafficking.”

Another issue with the framing of the disagreement over the bill -- this idea that abortion politics were getting in the way of support for trafficking victims -- is that made it seem like trafficking is an issue that can be addressed in a single bill. As I’ve written before, that is very much not the case. And now that the trafficking bill is likely to pass, Congress may be content to pat itself on the back for “doing something” about trafficking.

While the deadlock over this bill may be resolved, other issues of crucial importance to addressing trafficking -- both sex and labor trafficking -- remain unaddressed, and will likely stay that way. There are no signs that Congress is getting any closer to passing immigration reform or helping undocumented immigrants obtain legal status. Yet the precarious immigration status leaves people vulnerable to trafficking. So does poverty, homelessness and lack of access to support services for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, none of which have been, or will be, addressed by Republican proposals to slash the budget by $1 trillion, or by the party's continued punting on immigration reform.

Congress may be patting itself on the back for working together and being ever-so-slightly functional, but this isn’t a deal Democrats should be boasting about. Republicans injected Hyde language -- a poison pill that disproportionately harms low-income women and women of color by preventing the use of public dollars for abortion except in cases of rape, incest and life endangerment -- into a measure designed to help victims of sexual violence who may need comprehensive care, including abortion. Democrats may have succeeded in keeping Hyde in its current terrible form, but Congress is still using women's bodies and health as a bargaining chip. Holding women hostage this way is a particularly ugly twist in a trafficking bill, but it's unlikely you'll hear Democrats or Republicans admit it.

Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at kmcdonough@salon.com.

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