By insisting on abortion referrals in its anti-trafficking work, the Obama administration may be inadvertently helping the perpetrators of sex-slavery, a former Health and Human Services official says.
“The present policy of the (HHS) department is: 'Victims be damned; we're going to make an ideological point, that we want them referred to Planned Parenthood' – notwithstanding the fact that it's not in the best interests of victims,” Renewal Forum President Steven Wagner told CNA.
Wagner, who directed Health and Human Services' Human Trafficking Program from 2003 to 2006, published a co-written editorial on June 24 criticizing the department's current policy on abortion and contraception, requiring grant recipients to offer a “full range of reproductive services” to victims.
Three days earlier, a June 21 State Department report called attention to the 21 million worldwide victims of trafficking, who are coerced into prostitution and other kinds of modern-day slave labor. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the problem a “scourge” that demands “zealous advocacy.”
But Wagner, whose current work also focuses on trafficking, says the State Department's goal of stopping coerced labor is at odds with Health and Human Services' policy demanding that assistance to victims include referrals for abortion and contraception.
Wagner described the current HHS policy as “totally inappropriate,” saying it serves the interest of those who profit from sex-slavery rather than those forced into it. Traffickers, he said, want easy access to abortion and contraception “in order to protect the income-producing potential of their victims.”
If a prostitute becomes pregnant, “they'll take them into Planned Parenthood to get an abortion,” so that the woman can be made to perform sex work again as soon as possible, Wagner noted.
“In that situation, there's no possibility of the victim providing informed consent,” he said.
Health and Human Services' current policy on “reproductive services” caused the U.S. bishops' anti-trafficking work to lose funding last year. The bishops' program enjoyed high ratings and an excellent reputation, but was denied a federal grant for refusing to make referrals for services deemed immoral.
The bishops argued that their policy was a matter of conscience. According to Wagner, this policy was also in line with trafficking victims' best interests.
Even those who accept abortion and contraception as moral, he said, should recognize the problem involved in making such referrals for those enslaved in the sex trade.
“Any person of good will, with any kind of moral conscience, would agree that a person should be able to provide informed consent before any kind of medical procedure is performed on them.”
“That's a pretty basic principle in American law, and medical ethics. We don't perform procedures on those who haven't agreed to them.”
“When any person – and particularly a juvenile – is in the position of being trafficked, then by definition they cannot provide informed consent,” the Renewal Forum president explained. “They are under the control of a person, in whose interest it is that these procedures be performed.”
Because the trafficker “is trying to get the victim 'back out on the street' as quickly as possible,” the use of abortion or contraception cannot be regarded as the kind of free choice envisioned by the law and medical ethics.
Wagner noted that this issue with abortion and contraception referrals “is particular to trafficking victims – quite apart from one's overall position” on the morality of these services in general.
The question is further complicated, he said, by the 2011 release of footage showing Planned Parenthood employees' apparent willingness to cover up cases of purported trafficking. Undercover footage showed employees at several offices “willing, indeed eager, to facilitate” the trafficker's aims.
The same exposé found that Planned Parenthood employees “failed to fulfill their legal requirements to report what is self-evidently a case of felony sex abuse of a minor.” Victims of sexual slavery, Wagner stated, should be kept “as far as from Planned Parenthood clinics as possible.”
Rather than being referred to providers of abortion and contraception, individuals coerced into sex work should be referred to “a dedicated service provider” – preferably a survivor of prostitution – in order to “make decisions that best respond to the needs of the victim.”
“There really is no case in which it is appropriate to sustain someone in a condition of being trafficked,” the Renewal Forum president observed.
“The only answer is to get them out,” he said. “Any organization – like Planned Parenthood – that is unwilling to collaborate in the rescue of the victim, really has no role to play.”