How Right-Wing Media Helped Conservatives Turn Sex Trafficking Bill Into Abortion Fight

At the beginning of last week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell set in motion his plan to pressure Democrats to vote on the existing version of The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act without changes: he'd hold hostage the vote to confirm Attorney General nominee Loretta Lynch.  

Legislators from both parties overwhelmingly support the trafficking bill. But Senate Democrats oppose a provision added to the trafficking bill by Republican Senator John Cornyn that would apply the Hyde Amendment -- a legislative rider that has been attached to appropriations bills for decades that prevents the use of certain taxpayer dollars for abortion except in cases of rape, incest, or when the pregnancy endangers the life of the mother -- to a victim's fund established by the legislation. Because the victims' fund would be paid for with both private dollars and federal funds, the Cornyn provision would therefore expand the scope of the Hyde Amendment; for the first time it would make private funding streams subject to federal restrictions.  

Having filibustered the bill three times and blocked a Cornyn proposal to funnel the victims' fund through the appropriations process (where the Hyde Amendment would automatically apply), democrats made it clear they were not budging. At the same time conservatives were losing the argument against allowing a vote on the Lynch nomination as even former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani joined the calls to confirm her. 

As you'd expect, while the right-wing media has long been opposed to Lynch, it shifted gears to focus on the trafficking legislation. Dog whistles sounded as not-altogether-accurate arguments worked to turn the once non-partisan human sex trafficking issue into a battle over abortion rights. 

The emerging narrative falsely suggested that Democrats were trying to use taxpayer funds for abortion. The Federalist asserted democrats' filibuster was proof that the party is controlled by the “abortion lobby” saying,  “the abortion lobby opposes this bill because it doesn't provide public funding for elective abortions.”  A report on Breitbart News blamed  “abortion industry groups” for pressuring lawmakers to reject the legislation fearing that the legislation would put “the case for taxpayer funding of abortion at risk.”

In their criticism of Democrats, some pretended that the abortion language was just an extension of  “longstanding federal policy,” while others noted the expansion of the Hyde Amendment to private funding streams, but downplayed the significance that shift could have in setting a new precedent.  

 Fox News' Dana Perino left out the expansion when she recently said that Democrats are  “jerks”  on the trafficking issue because Hyde language is even in the Affordable Care Act (which, unlike the victims' fund, is funded through the appropriations process).  However, the Affordable Care Act is included in the appropriations process while the trafficking legislation is not. 

In The Wall Street Journal, conservative commentator Kimberly Strassel noted the language expansion, but downplayed its significance in part because as Senate Republicans have said, the language had been in the bill all along and was approved on a bipartisan basis in committee. Democrats have said that at the time they were not aware of the change (the House version contained no such provision); regardless, while its unclear exactly when they knew, they now know in time to stop the bill from moving forward. 

It's the men, women, and children who survive sex trafficking who have been largely absent in the conversation about why it matters if the Hyde Amendment is applied to the victims' fund in the trafficking bill.  More than 100,000 American children and teens are victims of sex trafficking, according to a recent PBS report. Anti-trafficking advocates estimate the domestic number could be as high as 300,000, noting that there are 2.8 million kids (half are girls) who are living on the streets and are among the most vulnerable to sex traffickers. But it can happen to anyone, of any race or socio-economic background; rural, urban, or suburban.

The International Labor Organization estimates that globally there are 4.5 million people in forced sexual labor. According to the Polaris Project, sex trafficking  “victims are often expected to earn a nightly quota, ranging from $500 to $1000 or more, which is confiscated by the pimp. Women in brothels disguised as massage businesses typically live on-site where they are coerced into providing commercial sex to 6 to 10 men a day, 7 days a week.”  Survivors have been beaten, tortured, starved, enduring both sexual and physical violence, denied adequate treatment for sexually transmitted diseases or illness, some suffer from PTSD.  All are in need of a range of services including legal, financial, medical, counseling and more.  

It might seem obvious that pregnant victims of sex trafficking could have (were likely to have) become pregnant after being raped. In reality, victims of sex trafficking are not always seen as rape victims because commercial sex isn't necessarily defined as rape. 

Which means that after being beaten, abused, and raped several times a day for who knows how long, if the right-wing media backed provision remains intact, these victims would potentially have to prove that their pregnancy was the result of a rape in order for the Hyde exception to apply. Sex trafficking victims, like so many American women who have been impacted the most by a slew of new laws designed to restrict a woman's legal access to abortion, are among the most vulnerable with the fewest resources.

This should never have turned into a fight about abortion rights; instead we should be focused on the needs of the survivors.  After having been stripped of so many basic rights and choices, these women should at least be able to make decisions about their healthcare. 

Karen Finney serves on the board of directors of NARAL Pro-Choice America.