Human Trafficking and Forced Abortions
by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
January 2015

Although it was emotionally hard to read at times, the Forum News Service’s seven part piece on human trafficking in North Dakota came at an important time. Human trafficking is a serious issue in the state and the state legislature, which just convened, has the opportunity to do something.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem is supporting a complete rewrite proposed by the Uniform Laws Commission to the state’s human trafficking laws. This bill, and several companion bills, focus on the enforcement side of the issue. It strengthens the laws, increases penalties, and gives law enforcement and states attorney more tools to combat human trafficking.

One tool that legislators should add is a penalty for a trafficker who forces a woman to have an abortion. Studies, reports, and even the federal government have acknowledged that victims of human trafficking are often forced to have abortions. In fact, repeated abortions and signs of self-induced abortions are two signs that health care workers are told could be an indication that a woman is a being sexually exploited by a trafficker.

One study published in the Annals of Health Law concluded “The prevalence of forced abortions is an especially disturbing trend in sex trafficking. Prior research noted that forced abortions were a reality for many victims of sex trafficking outside the United States and at least one study noted forced abortions in domestic trafficking. The survivors in this study similarly reported that they often did not freely choose the abortions they had while being trafficked.” One subject in the study stated: “in most of [my six abortions,] I was under serious pressure from my pimps to abort the babies.” Another subject reported seventeen abortions and that at least some of them were forced on her.

For this reason, the North Dakota Catholic Conference supports making forced abortions by human traffickers an additional crime that could be tacked on to a trafficker’s sentence.

A critical piece missing in previous efforts to address human trafficking is support for victims of trafficking. Victims of human trafficking have needs and issues that are unique from victims of other crimes, including domestic violence. If services are not available to help them escape traffickers and survive, they may never get help. Moreover, unless the services are available that assist them, victims may never feel comfortable and free to help law enforcement prosecute the perpetrators. The North Dakota Catholic Conference strongly supports efforts to provide services to victims of human traffickers.

At the same time, we need to be cautious. The Catholic Church worldwide has one of the best systems of services to help victims of trafficking. As I previously explained in a column from November 2011, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops had for six years received grants from the Department of Health and Human Services to help victims of trafficking. Then one day the conference was informed that the grant would not be renewed but given to an organization that scored lower in the application process. Eventually, the reason came out: the Obama Administration decided that only organizations that counseled and referred for abortions could apply.

Unfortunately, there are some activists who insist government should not help victims of human trafficking unless taxpayer money is used to counsel or refer for abortions. North Dakota law prohibits the use of state funds for the performance of abortions, but prohibitions on the use of state money for the referral of abortions is piece-meal. There is, for example, a law prohibiting it in family planning programs and another law prohibiting it in the abortion alternatives program. For that reason, we need to ensure that legislation appropriating funds to help victims of trafficking excludes using the money for counseling or referring for abortions.