Work Together to End Modern Slavery

by Christopher Dodson
Executive Director, North Dakota Catholic Conference
June 2014

Events overseas, like the kidnapping of schoolgirls in Nigeria, and troubling news of forced prostitution occurring around North Dakota’s oil fields have brought renewed attention to the problem of human trafficking. Human trafficking is a modern form of slavery. It is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person by force, fraud, or coercion, for the purpose of sexual exploitation, forced labor, or the taking of human organs. It is an issue that must be fought at every level, not just locally and internationally, but also across every aspect of life, whether including law, culture, and religion.

The Catholic Church has long condemned human trafficking and established social services to help its victims. At the same time, she has called for laws against human trafficking and changes in social systems to address the root causes of human trafficking. The Fathers of the Vatican II, reaffirmed the Church’s historic concern about forced labor, stating “slavery, prostitution, the selling of women and children, [and] disgraceful working conditions where [people] are treated as mere tools for profit, rather than as free and responsible persons” are “infamies” because they are an affront to very nature of the human person. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops played an important role in getting the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 passed and implemented, and contracted with the federal government to provide services to the victims of human trafficking.

In 2008 the North Dakota Catholic Conference first approached Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem about legislation for the 2009 legislative session to ensure that our state’s laws addressed human trafficking to the fullest extent possible. The conference and the Attorney General reached out to other interested parties, including legislators from both parties and the Institute for Trafficked, Exploited & Missing Persons (ITEMP) for support. The result was the state’s first law specifically addressing human trafficking.

Fighting human trafficking is also an opportunity for groups and organizations that rarely, if ever, find common ground to cooperate, support, and learn from each other.

Concerned Women of America, an organization that opposes abortion and perceived as leaning “politically right” has been a leader in the fight against human trafficking. Its presence and resources should be welcomed by women’s groups that support abortion rights and lean “politically left.” Labor unions concerned about the exploitation of workers should find common ground with libertarian-leaning activists opposed to the denial of liberty posed by traffickers. Feminist groups should find common ground with Evangelical Christians troubled by the pervasiveness of pornography, especially that involving children, that fuels the human trafficking machine.

As it happens too often in politics, however, competing ideologies and agendas can get in the way. Some groups refuse to work with each other because of differing views on legalization of prostitution. Differences on whether sex-selection abortions contribute to sex trafficking cause some groups to view each other with suspicion. Some individuals insist that addressing human trafficking cannot move forward unless the problem of illegal immigration is solved, although the two are separate issues.

Perhaps the most troubling example of politics and ideology interfering with fighting human trafficking was committed by the Obama Administration. For years United States Conference of Catholic Bishops received a federal grant to provide needed services victims of human trafficking. In 2011 the Administration, however, refused to renew the grant solely because USCCB would not provide abortion referrals and contraception to the victims, something that was never previously required.

The USCCB used its expertise to start a new program, one more focused on identifying and helping victims within their communities, unencumbered by politics. It also allows them to work with other religious and social organizations in the type of cooperative spirit that should permeate the effort.

An estimated 17,000 men, women, and children are trafficked across our borders each year. Voices are calling for new legislation at the federal and state levels. Let’s pray that we can put petty differences aside and work together to end modern slavery.