A new U.S. study of women who survived sex trafficking found that forced abortion was common among victims who became pregnant, calling it an “especially disturbing trend.”
The paper, published in the Annals of Health Law, was based on surveys of 66 women who had been trafficked for sex in the U.S. Fifty-five percent of the respondents reported undergoing at least one abortion while they were being trafficked, and 30 percent reported multiple abortions.
From the paper:
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. While only thirty-four respondents answered the question whether their abortions were of their own volition or forced upon them, more than half (eighteen) of that group indicated that one or more of their abortions was at least partly forced upon them.
One victim noted that “in most of [my six abortions,] I was under serious pressure from my pimps to abort the babies.” Another survivor, whose abuse at the hands of her traffickers was particularly brutal, reported seventeen abortions and indicated that at least some of them were forced on her.
“Notably, the phenomenon of forced abortion as it occurs in sex trafficking transcends the political boundaries of the abortion debate, violating both the pro-life belief that abortion takes innocent life and the pro-choice ideal of women’s freedom to make their own reproductive choices,” the authors wrote.
Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell
Disturbingly, the study also found that while 88 percent of the women reported having contact with health care workers — including at abortion clinics and Planned Parenthood — most were not offered help:
… These opportunities [to offer help] have largely been missed as even those healthcare professionals who recognized that victims might have been “on the street” rarely understood that they had a pimp/trafficker. Just over half (51.9 percent) of respondents who answered (N=81) said that at least some of the time the doctor knew they were “on the street,” while the remaining respondents did not believe doctors were aware of their situations. Almost half of survivors (43.1 percent) (N=58) said the doctor asked them something about their lives, but only 19.5 percent of those who answered (N=41) reported that the doctor knew they had a pimp. At least two prior studies have demonstrated that medical care providers are woefully unprepared to identify trafficking victims.
One survivor, “Lauren,” reported:
During the time I was on the street, I went to hospitals, urgent care clinics, women’s health clinics, and private doctors. No one ever asked me anything anytime I ever went to a clinic. . . . I was on birth control during the 10 years I was on the streets—mostly Depo-Provera shots which I got at the Planned Parenthood and other neighborhood clinics. I also got the morning-after pill from them. I was young and so I had to have a waiver signed in order to get these—one of the doctors (a private doctor I think) signed this waiver when my uncle took me to see him.
Another survivor who underwent six abortions — including forced abortions — answered “yes” to the question: “Did the doctor, nurse, health provider know you were ‘on the street?'” but reported that none of them asked her anything about her life (click graphic to enlarge). To the next question, “Did the health provider know you had a pimp?” she wrote, “Yes — only the one private doctor. Not the health clinics — but they never asked.”
Further, undercover investigations of abortion facilities by Live Action and Life Dynamics have found that abortion clinic staff are often enabling and even facilitating the sexual abuse of women and girls. When Live Action sent undercover investigators posing as sex traffickers into clinics, they filmed staffers advising the supposed traffickers on how to get abortions for underage victims while avoiding the law.
There have also been lawsuits and criminal cases in a number of states in which girls and teens were taken for abortions by their abusers, given abortions with no questions asked and then returned to the abusive situation. In Arizona, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office alleged that a Planned Parenthood counselor deliberately falsified a pregnant teen’s record because “they did not want the hassle of having to report the assault to law enforcement as they were a mandatory reporter.” The alleged perpetrator, an 18-year-old student, is accused or raping or molesting at least 18 girls, many fellow classmates.
Federal investigators report that sex trafficking in the U.S. likely generates more than $9.5 billion a year and that it goes on in “nearly ever American city and town.” A State Department report released in 2008 said that most victims of human trafficking are women and girls and that 70 percent of them are trafficked for sexual purposes.
Abortion Likely to Harm, Not Help
In 2011, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services instituted a new policy that that trafficking victims receive the “full range of family-planning services,” including abortions and contraception.
But a look below the surface shows that abortion is likely to harm, not help, victims of trafficking – and, in the words of one expert, could even be a death sentence.
Even a cursory look at research on abortion shows that a prior history of sexual assault or abuse is actually a risk factor for psychological problems after abortion. And women and girls who have been trafficked could have other known risk factors for post-abortion psychological problems as well: low self-esteem, few friends, lack of support, feelings of alienation, prior emotional problems, previous abortion or miscarriage, and being coerced or pressured to abort or feeling that abortion is their only option.
Further, the Elliot Institute’s survey of nearly 200 women who became pregnant as a result of rape or incest – one of the only studies on sexual assault pregnancy ever done – found that:
- Nearly 80 percent of the women who aborted a pregnancy conceived in sexual assault reported that abortion had been the wrong solution.
- Most women who had abortions said that abortion only increased the trauma they had experienced.
- None of the women who gave birth to a child conceived in sexual assault expressed regret or wished they had aborted instead.
The survey found that in many cases, the victim faced strong pressure or demands to abort. This was especially true for victims of incest or ongoing sexual abuse. In almost case where the victim had an abortion, it was the girl’s parents or the perpetrator who made the decision and arrangements for the abortion, not the girl herself. These included cases where the perpetrator arranged for abortion in order to hide the situation and continue abusing the victim.
“A Death Sentence”
Steven Wagner, former director of HHS and the creator of U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ program to help trafficking victims, says that HHS’s policy is exploitative and could be deadly for women.
In a piece at the National Catholic Register, he wrote that “to provide abortions or regimes of contraception to a person currently being exploited for commercial sex might very well be a death sentence.” Further:
… 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.
Abortion, on the other hand, is usually unwanted and often traumatic, used as a tool by sex traffickers and other sexual predators, puts women and girls at further risk for more trauma and continued abuse. Health care workers and rescue organizations need to work for solutions that will actually help women, instead of further endangering and abandoning them to abortion.
This is also why the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy at abortion clinics needs to come to an end. The Elliot Institute’s model bill would hold abortion businesses liable for failing to screen for coercion and for performing abortions when there is evidence that the woman or girl is being forced or coerced into abortion. This could help identify women and girls who are victims of sexual predators or human trafficking and would stop providing perpetrators with an easy way to cover up and continue their crimes.
Violence Against Women
Forced Abortion in America Special Report
Concealing Sex Trafficking: Failure to Report Sex Crimes May Also Hide Human Trafficking
Not Just China & India: Sex-Selection Abortions Spreading Around the World
Study Finds Women Having Repeat Abortions More Likely to Be Abused
Promoting Abortion Will Increase, Not End, Violence Against Women
Women’s Health & Well-Being
New Study Links Multiple Abortions, Preterm Birth
Multiple Abortions Increase Risk of Maternal Death: New Study
Higher Death Rates After Abortion Found in U.S., Finland and Denmark: Studies Find Abortion Is Not Safer Than Childbirth
Most Studies Show Abortion Linked to Increased Mental Health Problems