Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly referred to the federal law that restricts federal funds for abortions as the Hyde Act. The correct name is the Hyde Amendment. This version has been corrected.
IT IS estimated that 100,000 children each year are trafficked for sex in the United States. Lax laws and modern technology enable the predators, while their young victims often are treated like criminals instead of getting the help they need. Congress last week seemed poised to do something about this. Then politics intervened. This week the question will be whether senators can put the interests of scared, abused children ahead of the chance to score political points.
The Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act of 2015, introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) with an impressive bipartisan roster of co-sponsors, would strengthen the ability of law enforcement authorities to go after those who purchase sex from someone who has been trafficked and would direct criminal fines paid by perpetrators into a fund to help victims. The bill won unanimous approval from the Senate Judiciary Committee. “The most comprehensive and thoughtful piece of anti-trafficking legislation currently pending,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said last Monday.
Within a day, Democrats were threatening a filibuster, claiming Republicans had sneaked anti-abortion language into the bill — a provision that essentially applies Hyde Amendment restrictions on the use of federal funds for abortions to the victim restitution fund . Maybe Republicans should have called more attention to that provision, but it was in the bill when it was released in January, it was there when the bill was marked up in committee and it was there when the 68-page bill was unanimously passed; Democrats have only themselves to blame if they overlooked it.
Far more significant, though, is whether the provision justifies the defeat of this important legislation. We wish Senate Republicans had not chosen a bill about human trafficking as a vehicle for abortion politics; a House-passed version contains no such language or restrictions. But Democrats overstate the extent to which this provision would lengthen the reach of the Hyde Amendment. True, the money in question would come from fines and not federal taxpayer dollars, but since the fund would be a federal creation, is that such a stretch? Also true, this anti-abortion provision would be in effect for five years, while the Hyde Amendment must be reauthorized annually. But since the Hyde Amendment has been in force for four decades, the practical difference again is slight.
There is a reasonable way for the two sides to compromise. The bill should make clear that the exceptions for abortion written into the Hyde Amendment — for rape, incest and when the mother’s life is in danger — are broadly enough defined in this bill. Girls and young women who are sold into prostitution are victims of rape, and the law needs to reflect that. The question is whether the senators who want to accomplish something can overcome the advocacy groups and politicians who would rather use this controversy as one more opportunity to raise funds and sharpen divisions.