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A Presidential Proclamation Is Not Enough

Brigitte Amiri,
Deputy Director,
ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project
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February 1, 2010

Today is National Freedom Day, the culmination of a month-long campaign to increase awareness about present-day slavery and human trafficking. In January, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation declaring January 2010 as National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The purpose of this proclamation is to recommit the U.S. to ending human trafficking and to educate ourselves about all forms of present-day slavery and the signs and consequences of human trafficking. Human trafficking occurs around the world, including right here in the U.S. Indeed, every year more than 14,000 individuals, predominantly women, are brought into the U.S. annually and exploited for their labor, including in the commercial sex industry.

Though the president’s proclamation is laudable, the Obama administration can and should do more to help trafficking victims after they escape their abusive situations. The government is legally obligated to provide social services to these individuals to help them become self-sufficient. Through a policy started by the Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration, the government has seriously compromised the health and well-being of these women, men, and children, by failing to ensure that government funds may be used for much needed reproductive health care services. Each year since 2006, the government has awarded a multimillion dollar contract to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), and has allowed USCCB to prohibit — based solely on its religious beliefs — any federal funds it distributes from being used for reproductive health care referrals and services.

Allowing a religious entity to impose its religious beliefs on others using taxpayer dollars violates the Constitution, and the ACLU filed a lawsuit more than a year ago. Last month, the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts heard arguments on the government’s attempt to get the case dismissed. It is truly ironic that the Obama administration continues to fight our efforts to ensure that trafficking victims get all the services they need, while at the same time commemorating National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month. The maxim “actions speak louder than words” is particularly appropriate here: the president’s policy should follow his proclamation, and his administration should ensure that trafficking victims get all the services — including reproductive health services — they need to help them rebuild their lives.