You’d think legislation to help victims of slavery wouldn’t be very controversial. And it wasn’t — until an abortion provision entered the conversation.
On Tuesday afternoon, Democrats discovered anti-abortion language in the proposed Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which was meant to help fund programs for victims by using fines charged to traffickers.
Some Democrats suggested they had been tricked and that Republicans had slipped the language in last minute. The sponsor of the bill, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), maintains the provision had been there all along.
The abortion language could be axed from the bill if put to a vote. Minority Leader Harry Reid has said he would not allow it to “come off the floor” with the language intact.
So why is funding for abortions so important for trafficking victims?
In a survey of 67 sex trafficking victims, more than half reported having had abortions, according to a report by Laura J. Lederer, a former Senior Advisor to the U.S. Department of State. Nearly 3 out of 4 women surveyed said they had at least one pregnancy while trafficked, and 20% of respondents reported five or more pregnancies. The women polled in the study also reported being forced to have sex with an average of 13 “buyers” a day.
Sixty percent of women and girls who come across the U.S. border report being raped along the dangerous journey, according to an Amnesty International survey.
Advocates didn’t discover the anti-abortion provision in the bill until Tuesday, according to Senior Staff Attorney Brigitte Amiri of the American Civil Liberties Union. She says the trafficking bill language is just one of many challenges to the abortion rights of migrant women advocates are currently fighting.
Without safe, affordable abortions, some migrant women turn to less safe alternatives — the best known of which is a hexagonal pill known as “misoprostol” or “Cytotec” which is sometimes purchased at informal flea markets called pulgas.
Access to abortion for immigrant girls in government custody is complicated by the fact that many are held by faith-based contractors. Five of the largest religious organizations, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, have challenged the government's requirement that they provide abortion access to girls and women they house.
The agencies noted in a letter sent last month to the Office of Refugee Resettlement that they view “the procedure as wrong” and “cannot, in conscience, set out to help ensure access to it.”
Jessica González-Rojas, Executive Director of National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health called the language in the Senate bill “inexcusable.”
“Even more so given the high rates of sexual abuse experienced by Latina survivors,” she said. “Women, not politicians, should make our own decisions when it comes to pregnancy.”
Cristina is an Emmy-nominated reporter and producer. She recently won an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for her documentary Death by Fentanyl. She attended Yale University and has reported for the New Haven Independent, ABC News, Univision, The Huffington Post, and Fusion.