Last week, the House of Representatives passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act (S. 178), a bill to enhance protections and increase the infrastructure around restitution for victims of human trafficking. The vote was nearly unanimous, with all but three present Representatives voting in favor of the bill, which was identical to the version the Senate passed a few weeks prior. The bill moves now to the President, who is expected to sign it into law.
You may remember the heated debate over an anti-abortion provision that first drew attention to the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act. One key feature of the bill is the establishment of a Domestic Trafficking Victims Fund to provide financial support to individuals as they rebuild their lives after having been trafficked. When it first came up in the Senate, the bill had strong, bipartisan support, a rare instance in which members of Congress were united across the ideological spectrum. The bill passed swiftly through procedural steps and seemed poised for easy passage. As a vote neared, however, it came to light that language had been added to restrict trafficking victims from accessing abortion services if they were going to use help from the victim assistance fund.
The anti-choice provision mirrored language in the Hyde Amendment (a prohibition on taxpayer funding for abortion that affects all federally-administered health-care plans like Medicaid), and would create a harmful barrier between survivors of domestic trafficking and the comprehensive health care they need. The provision in the trafficking bill sought to expand the Hyde Amendment’s attack on reproductive rights by restricting money from the Domestic Trafficking Victims Fund—which is financed by penalties from convicted federal offenders, and not by tax dollars—from being used to help trafficking victims cover the cost of abortion, with exceptions only in cases of rape, incest or if the woman’s health is in danger.
Many in the reproductive rights and human trafficking advocacy communities expressed their dismay that anti-choice Senators inserted this restrictive language into the bill. A number of Senators withdrew their support from the bill, leaving it without enough votes to advance in that initial procedural vote. Subsequently, lawmakers reached an agreement so that no federal funding goes toward abortion, in accordance with the Hyde Amendment, while also not expanding the Hyde Amendment beyond its existing reach.
The Reform Movement takes pride in its long history of working to combat human trafficking and modern day slavery. We take to heart the call to remember that we were slaves in the land of Egypt and that no one else should be exploited as we once were. Maimonides, one of the greatest sages of our tradition, spoke on the importance of helping and freeing those enslaved in a lifestyle that is beyond their control. The redemption of captives takes precedence to clothing and providing for the poor; “as the captive is included in the category of the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, and the one whose life is in danger,” there is no greater mitzvah than redeeming the captives.