What About the Women? Sex Tafficking Victims Need Comprehensive Health Services

The main issue in dealing with those who have been subject to human trafficking, “a form of modern-day slavery” that often includes sexual exploitation, is what is in the best interest of the victims. All victims of trafficking clearly need health care services to recover. Women and girls who have been victimized by sex trafficking must be given comprehensive health services, and that includes reproductive services. But this is more than health care; it is the restoration of a woman or girl’s human dignity, the right to determine what will happen to her body and how in terms of reproduction.

Yet, in the recent controversy over the Department of Health and Human Service’s decision in late September to end funding to the U.S. Catholic bishops’ Migration and Refugee Services, a program to help these victims of trafficking, the issue is framed as “Obama versus the Catholic Church,” and cast as an issue of religious liberty.

Where do the women and girls who have been sex trafficked and their well-being fit into this framework? I have spent years studying the horrendous system of sexual exploitation of women, children, and men, and writing about it with Rita Nakashima Brock in Casting Stones: Prostitution and Liberation in Asia and the United States . I have done Bible studies for more than a year with women seeking to leave the sex industry in Chicago. Sex trafficking, a particularly “loathsome,” crime-ridden aspect of the systematic sexual exploitation of women, children and vulnerable men of what we call the “sex industry,” is callous sexual cruelty systematized for profit.

I have talked to women of all ages who have been trafficked in this system, and I have concluded that what is evil about this system, besides the criminality of kidnapping, torture and enslavement, is that it turns a human being into a thing, a commodity for sale. The Westminster Catechism instructs us that the “chief end” of a human being is to “glorify God” and “enjoy” God “forever.” But instead of human beings destined for a God-relationship, sex trafficking makes people into bodies that are disrespected in the most appalling ways, and the human will is deliberately destroyed.

Women and girls victimized in this sex trafficking system need health care; that is beyond dispute. But what they also need is a restoration of respect for them as people capable of ethical decision-making where their bodies, minds, and spirits are concerned. Reproductive services, including contraception and legal abortion, are part of that restoration for them, to choose or not to choose as part of their journey toward wholeness.

There was “no reason given” by the Department of Health and Human Services for non-renewal of the grant to the Catholic agency, yet it has been interpreted through the written instructions by HSS to groups requesting grants through the Trafficking Victims Protection Act that “strong preference” will be given to organizations that offer referrals for the “full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care” to mean the Catholic group “could have been denied funding under those instructions because of the Church’s opposition to abortion and contraception.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, which filed a lawsuit in 2009 against the contract, saying it was unconstitutional because the bishops would not refer pregnant sex-trafficking victims for abortions, applauded the Obama administration decision to deny the grant. Brigitte Amiri, an ACLU lawyer, told Bloomberg: “We applaud the federal government for recognizing that trafficking victims need reproductive-health series and making awards based on those needs. This has little to do with religion and everything to do with what the trafficking victims need.”

In September 2009, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops said the ACLU lawsuit is “without merit and an affront to religious liberty.”

Those seem to me to be the parameters of the debate. Is this an issue of “religious liberty,” or “what the trafficking victims need”?

Religious liberty is not the freedom to impose one’s religious views on others. We must ask, “when does religious liberty shift from the freedom to practice one’s faith to the imposition of that faith on a diverse public?” as Sally Steenland of the Center for American Progress asks us to consider. “Or,” she adds, “to put it another way—when does liberty for some become discrimination against others?”

If the Catholic Church will not, because of its theology, provide the full range of reproductive services these women and girls who have been sex trafficked need, then indeed the contracts should be awarded to those who can offer them. The women and girls who have been sex trafficked and their needs come first.

Religious liberty means respecting the conscience of a believer; it does not mean that any one religious faith has the right to impose its views on an entire society.

My interpretation of this decision by Health and Human Services is that it is not discrimination against the Catholic Church; instead, I believe HHS is rightly advocating for some of the most exploited women and girls on earth.


Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite  | Nov 1, 2011 4:06 PM

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