Kathleen Sebelius' Gruesome Moral Calculus

Health and Human Services policy may be furthering the exploitation of sex-trafficked women.

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speaks during a news conference on Nov. 14 in Washington.
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius speaks during a news conference on Nov. 14 in Washington. (photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — The Washington Post’s Jerry Markon recently reported that senior political appointees at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) had overruled the department’s professional staff and ended funding of the Catholic bishops’ program to aid victims of human trafficking.

This Thursday, Dec. 1, the House Committee on Government Oversight will follow up with hearings on HHS and the Catholic Church: Examining the Politicization of Grants. The committee’s chairman, Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has written HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius requesting internal documents dealing with the grant review process.

Markon’s editors at the Post — while publishing the substance of his investigation into grant award malfeasance in a critical federal program designed to aid a profoundly traumatized population — disguised the story as a mere policy dispute over abortion and contraception, titling the article “Catholic Groups’ Ire at Obama Growing.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) contributed to this misdirection by accusing HHS of “ABC: Anybody but Catholics” bias. What the USCCB ought to have condemned, in my judgment, was the harm HHS’s new policy will inflict on victims of human trafficking.

The Church’s victims’ services program is not the only faith-based agency affected by HHS’ new requirement that victims receive the “full range of family-planning services,” including abortions and contraception. The Salvation Army — a huge presence in the trafficking-services arena — and the expanding membership of the Christian Trafficking Shelter Association also will undoubtedly decline to participate in the HHS program. Instead of expanding the pool of organizations working to “rescue and restore” victims of human trafficking, Kathleen Sebelius is advancing a policy that will diminish the reach of these vital services. But that’s okay with our secretary of Health and Human Services who holds that the “positive good” of abortion trumps all other considerations.

This dispute isn’t simply about the morality of abortion in general; it is about the specific harm inflicted on victims of human trafficking by the Sebelius policy. Not only is she creating a disincentive for organizations to serve victims where once there had been an open door; her policy will visit additional harm on the victims. In fact, to provide abortions or regimes of contraception to a person currently being exploited for commercial sex might very well be a death sentence.

Not Pretty Woman

A victim of human trafficking is someone compelled to perform labor or to engage in commercial sex against his or her will. This is an economic crime, committed for the profit of the trafficker. When the victim is an adult, trafficking occurs when the victim’s will is overcome by means of force, fraud or coercion. But under federal law, every juvenile who is exploited in commercial sex is also a victim — period. A juvenile cannot consent to engage in commercial sex under the law.

Commercial sexual exploitation is not Pretty Woman (the unrealistic movie with Julia Roberts); it is an unrelenting nightmare of dignity-crushing serial rape. Those who have been sexually exploited are typically deeply traumatized, and there is arguably no population in the U.S. so large and in such dire need of help with so few sources of aid as victims of human trafficking.

When Congress passed the original anti-trafficking statute in 2000, they had in mind persons from other countries being victimized here in the U.S. But it turns out that the vast majority of victims in this country are actually our own kids: 250,000 juvenile victims each year vs. perhaps 20,000 foreign victims, based on U.S. government estimates. As an aside, HHS has ruled that none of the money appropriated to help victims of human trafficking can be used to help American victims — the money can only assist foreign victims.

In 2006, HHS conducted a competition to identify an organization that could assemble a national network of service providers willing and able to assist victims of human trafficking and to provide a modest financial stipend to those organizations, based on the number of victims each was serving. The U.S. bishops’ conference won the competition and has been successfully administering that project until this fall.

This year, instead of renewing the contract with the USCCB, HHS decided to conduct a new competition with new rules: “[HHS] will give strong preference to applicants that are willing to offer all of the services and referrals …” to include “the full range of legally permissible gynecological and obstetric care.”

The USCCB applied anyway, and despite its disadvantageous refusal to provide “the full range of gynecological services,” their grant proposal scored the second-highest number of points in an objective review of all applications. Undeterred, as Markon reports in his Post story, HHS political appointees funded the highest-rated applicant, then skipped over USCCB to fund two more applicants that scored much lower — so low that the professional program staff deemed their applications to be noncompetitive (read: “unqualified”).

Dead by 21

So what good is Secretary Sebelius, working through her political appointees, seeking to achieve in jettisoning a proven and effective contractor and choosing instead two unqualified grantees? This “higher good,” of course, is abortion. If a victim of human trafficking gets pregnant, then of course she should have an abortion, right? This value trumps all other considerations.

But let’s look more closely at this proposition. If someone is being trafficked — which is to say, under the domination of a pimp/trafficker — she is by definition unable to provide informed consent to an abortion or to a regime of contraception. The victim has no voice in this decision. Indeed, providing such services to a victim of sexual trafficking benefits only the trafficker by getting the victim back out on the street and making money sooner.

The average age of entry into commercial sex exploitation is about 14. The average life expectancy of someone in commercial sexual exploitation is seven years. Start at 14, dead by 21. The mortality rate for someone in commercial sexual exploitation is 40 times higher than for a non-exploited person of the same age. Helping a victim return to exploitation more quickly by terminating a pregnancy increases the odds of death.

Kristy Childs is a survivor of commercial sexual exploitation and the founder of Veronica’s Voice, an organization in Kansas City that rescues victims. She tells me there have been many live births among her clients over the past 12 years, but she has yet to be asked for help getting an abortion. “Pregnancy often leads a woman to seek rescue and a new life,” she said.

So, on the one hand, we have the USCCB, which will never facilitate an abortion but will arrange to meet all of the other appropriate service needs of victims, from residence to medical and mental-health treatment. On the other hand, we have an abortion provider such as Planned Parenthood, whose staff have been videotaped as being willing to perpetuate the apparent sex slavery of a juvenile by arranging for an abortion and not reporting the suspicion of felony sex abuse of a minor to authorities. Which is acting in the authentic interests of the victim?

According to Secretary Sebelius’ gruesome moral calculation, the authentic interests of the victim take a back seat to liberalizing the provision of abortion — rather the inverse of a preferential option for the poor. Someone with such a distorted moral compass ought not to be making policy decisions on behalf of the nation.

Steven Wagner, president of the Renewal Forum, is the former director of the Human Trafficking Program at HHS, from 2003-2006, and the architect of the original program to aid victims of human trafficking administered by the USCCB.