Statement of Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Ranking Member, Senate Judiciary Committee, On Consideration of the Committee Reported Substitute to S. 178

An important debate occurred yesterday on the Senate floor between two of the cosponsors of the bill we are considering.  It was what many would call a “C-SPAN Moment,” a focused and memorable discussion of a significant issue now before the Senate.  It was an honest discussion about what is at stake in the debate we are having right now.  The core question is how we are going to support the survivors of what we all agree is a heinous and deplorable crime.

Late yesterday, Senator Feinstein articulated with powerful clarity why the Hyde Amendment has no place in what we are trying to do here – particularly when the legislation we are debating involves no taxpayer funds.  The Domestic Trafficking Victims’ Fund included in S. 178 is funded by a “special assessment” fine collected from convicted sex traffickers intended to help survivors rebuild their lives.  Whether taxpayer dollars should be used to ensure that a full range of health care options are available to this vulnerable population is an important debate we will have another day.  The application of the Hyde Amendment when zero taxpayer dollars are involved is unprecedented and represents a significant change in federal policy.

When asked why the Hyde Amendment has resulted in such outcry, Senator Feinstein said simply:  “Because of what this legislation is. This legislation is about the raping. . . of young girls.”

She is right, and I encourage everyone to go back and watch her moving remarks that got right to the heart of this debate.  These are children who have been bought and sold like animals. They have had every choice taken from them.  And now, if they survive, if they escape, we should not put limits on what health services they can seek.  I stand with the survivors of these crimes. I stand with Senator Feinstein.  This is a line we should not cross.

Human trafficking victims are often not treated as rape victims.  Too often these girls are treated as prostitutes.  That is a fact we are trying to change, but we cannot ignore the reality that many of these girls are put through our juvenile justice system and prosecuted as criminals, not as victims.

It is easy for some to claim that there is a so-called “rape exception” to the Hyde restriction but the reality is that for the survivors of this terrible crime, the rape exception feels more like an overwhelming bureaucracy.  In many states, victims are forced to jump through hoop after hoop to qualify for the exception. They have to obtain police reports or certifications from state agencies, making them relive the details of their trauma again and again.  One state even requires the governor to approve any exception.  And another state does not recognize the rape exception at all. The easiest, most appropriate solution here is to simply remove the Hyde restriction so that survivors can make their own health care decisions.  That is what the survivors are asking us to do.  That is what the professionals who work with human trafficking survivors are asking us to do.

Yesterday, Senator Cornyn argued that the inclusion of this language was routine; that it does not change the status quo at all.  That is simply not accurate.  The Hyde Amendment is about keeping taxpayer dollars out of the abortion debate.  We may have different opinions on that issue, but that is not what we are talking about here.  The money at issue in this bill is collected from sex traffickers.  The bottom line is that the offender-financed fund created in this bill will rely on zero taxpayer dollars.  Maintaining current practice means removing this provision.

The House bill that passed unanimously almost two months ago does not contain this expansion of the Hyde Amendment’s reach.  If Speaker Boehner could find a way to bring the House together and pass this bill without injecting abortion politics into the discussion, then so can we. 

Senator Feinstein is right that we have amendments we need to consider if we can simply get past this stalemate.  But she is also right that the issue at stake here is too important to turn our back on.  This is not a provision we can just ignore and dismiss as the status quo.  I believe we can find a path forward.  But the solution is NOT to expand restrictions on the health care choices of human trafficking survivors.


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