Legislation to bolster efforts to combat human trafficking has fallen victim to abortion rights advocates in the U.S. Senate.
The Democratic minority defeated an effort to bring an anti-trafficking bill to the Senate floor March 17 because of its opposition to language barring federal funds for abortion. The Senate twice voted 55-43 to invoke cloture, as it is known, which would directly open debate on the floor for action on the legislation.
The vote came on legislation that would enhance penalties for such crimes as slavery and trafficking, as well as sexual exploitation of children. The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, S. 178, would also increase restitution for trafficking victims and fund services for child pornography victims.
The Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), a long-time advocate for pro-life and anti-trafficking policies, decried the Senate action.
“Stopping human trafficking is too important a priority to be held hostage by the abortion lobby’s culture-warring,” ERLC President Russell Moore said in a written statement. “I urge the Senate to think about vulnerable women and children in peril, rather than about the political maneuvers of the abortion-industrial complex.”
All but four Democrats voted against bringing the bill to the Senate floor. Democrats voting for cloture were Sens. Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Joe Donnelly of Indiana, Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota and Joe Manchin of West Virginia. The only Republican to vote against cloture was Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. His “nay” vote was required for him to bring the measure up for a future vote.
The legislation appeared to have no chance of defeat until a week before the March 17 cloture votes. It had 13 Democratic co-sponsors upon introduction and gained unanimous approval from the Judiciary Committee. Democrats suddenly began criticizing language that bars funds made available in the bill from being used for abortions. The ban, known as the Hyde Amendment, first became law in 1976 and has since been applied widely in federal programs. The prohibition has exceptions for a threat to the life of the mother and in pregnancies that result from rape or incest.
Abortion-rights advocacy organizations such as NARAL Pro-choice America and the National Organization for Women criticized Republicans for including the language, and Senate Democrats joined them. NARAL described inclusion of the Hyde language as “another manipulative attempt by extremists.”
Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada charged Republicans with choosing “to manufacture a political fight.” He declined a GOP offer to vote on an amendment removing the Hyde language and told the Senate March 12 Republicans “need to just take abortion politics out of this bill.”
The legislation’s lead sponsor, Sen. John Cornyn, R.-Texas, said in a March 17 written statement, “It is becoming increasingly clear that Democrats are perfectly content to play politics with the most apolitical issue – stopping human traffickers and helping their victims.”
Democrats will have another opportunity to vote to bring the bill to the floor, McConnell said March 18. “Democrats owe these victims, not lobbyists, help,” he told the Senate. Before the March 17 votes, McConnell urged the White House to become involved in advancing the bill through the Senate.
Reid has called for the GOP leadership to bring the nomination of Loretta Lynch as attorney general to the floor for a confirmation vote, but McConnell has said the Senate will address the anti-trafficking measure before dealing with Lynch.
Other anti-trafficking bills have been proposed in Congress. Included is the End Modern Slavery Initiative Act, which is sponsored by Sen. Bob Corker, R.-Tenn. The proposal, already approved unanimously by the Foreign Relations Committee, would establish a centralized effort to thwart trafficking and slavery at a time when an estimated 27 million people are enslaved globally. It would create a Washington, D.C., nonprofit foundation designed to use federal, foreign and private sector funds to reduce slavery by a measurable 50 percent.
The ERLC and other anti-trafficking advocates are strong supporters of Corker’s bill. The Southern Baptist entity has been a leading advocate for policies to combat human trafficking since the move to address the problem resulted in the first anti-trafficking law in 2000.
The U.S. State Department categorizes slavery – which exists in the United States and more than 160 other countries – as sex trafficking, child sex trafficking, forced labor, bonded labor, debt bondage, involuntary domestic servitude, forced child labor or child soldiers.
The ERLC is supporting several pro-life measures in this congressional session, including the:
Pain-capable Unborn Child Protection Act, H.R. 36, which would ban abortions on babies 20 weeks or more after fertilization based on scientific evidence that a child in the womb experiences pain by that point in gestation. The House of Representatives was scheduled to vote on the bill Jan. 22, but the GOP leadership canceled the roll call after about two dozen Republicans expressed concerns about the legislation. The House passed the same bill in its previous session. The switch by the GOP drew criticism from pro-life proponents, including Moore, who called it an “act of moral cowardice.”
No Taxpayer Funding of Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act, S. 582 and H.R. 7, which would institute a permanent, government-wide prohibition on federal funding of abortion and require consumers be informed whether abortion is covered in health insurance plans. The House approved its version in a 242-179 vote Jan. 22, when the GOP leadership substituted a roll call on this bill for one on the Pain-capable Unborn Child Protection Act.
Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act, S. 404 and H.R. 803, which would criminalize transporting a minor across state lines to circumvent parental involvement laws in her home state.
Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, S. 48, which would outlaw abortion based on the sex of an unborn child. The ERLC is seeking inclusion in the legislation of a ban on race-selection abortion.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Tom Strode is the Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the news service of the Southern Baptist Convention.)