Prostitution pledge goes up in smoke
Esther Kaplan printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue May 09, 2006 at 10:55:57 PM EST
A federal judge today struck down the Bush administration's notorious prostitution pledge, finding it violates the First Amendment. In recent years, Bush and his gang of Republicans in Congress have pushed through laws requiring that all recipients of U.S. assistance to fight AIDS must make an official statement opposing prostitution. Of course for organizations doing HIV prevention work among sex workers, taking such a stance would undermine their entire mission. In countries such as India, where sex work is a significant factor in an exploding epidemic, the policy could prove to be quite deadly as organizations doing front-line AIDS work have faced having to either eliminate programs with sex workers or sacrifice crucial U.S. government grants.
Unlike the abortion gag rule, which only applied to foreign organizations, the prostitution pledge has been applied to organizations based in the United States that do AIDS work abroad. Two of these groups, Alliance for Open Society International and Pathfinder International, sued the government and won.

"The Supreme Court has repeatedly found that speech, or an agreement not to speak, cannot be compelled or coerced as a condition of participation in a government program," wrote Judge Victor Marrero of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

"We believe that public health policy should be based on science, not ideology," said the Open Society's Ricardo Castro, according to a press release from NYU's Brennan Center for Justice, which argued the case.

Last year, Brazil refused some $40 million in U.S. monies for its HIV/AIDS work in order to avoid signing the pledge. The country's AIDS commissioner said at the time, "For us it was an ethical issue. We have to reach every segment of society, with no discrimination." Smaller, resource-starved HIV prevention groups refused to sign as well, leaving them to continue their life-saving work as volunteers.

The federal court decision could mark a return to sanity in U.S. global health policy.

Meanwhile, the use of sex workers as political footballs continues unabated, even among self-identified liberals. Nicholas Kristoff was at it again in today's New York Times Op Ed page.  Just like his comrades in the State Department, whose praises he sings with an embarrassing effusiveness, Kristoff has let his obsession with sex trafficking lead him to tinker with the facts. In his zeal to exaggerate the phenom, he segues seamlessly from descriptions of girls in prostitution to the global total of all trafficked people.

I've seen the peddling of humans in many countries: the 8-year-old Filipino girl whose mother used to pull her out of school to rent pedophiles; the terrified 14-year-old Vietnamese girl imprisoned in a brothel pending the sale of her virginity; the Pakistani teenager whose brothel's owner dealt with her resistance by drugging her into a stupor. The U.N. has estimated that 12.3 million people worldwide are caught in forced labor of one kind or another.

According to UNICEF , a large part of that tally is trafficking of babies for adoption in the West, trafficking of girls for mail-order brides, and trafficking for domestic work. The significant trafficking busts in the United States--the sinking of the Golden Venture, with its cargo of trafficked garment workers; the New York City racket involving deaf Mexicans who were trafficked to work as beggars on the subways--all involve adults forced into various kinds of indentured servitude involving manual labor, not young girls forced into brothels. UNICEF estimates that of the 246 million children engaged in child labor worldwide, only about 1.8 million are engaged in prostitution or pornography.

Those at the State Department and on the Christian right who have made sex trafficking their top priority are not doing it to save those 246 million kids from grinding labor in factories or as domestic servants. They're doing it to serve a broader agenda of legislating morality and disempowering women. And who's a better poster girl for that crusade than Kristoff's imprisoned 14-year-old?

The federal court decision could mark a return to sanity in U.S. global health policy.

Considering the Bush administration's track record of caving to the religious right's demands on issues of this kind, let's all hope this case isn't appealed further up the judicial food chain.

by moiv on Tue May 09, 2006 at 11:22:16 PM EST

anyone have any info on which Christian Right groups pushed for and support this policy?

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue May 09, 2006 at 11:49:08 PM EST
Concerned Women for America is probably the Christian right group leading the anti-trafficking charge. Incredibly, even though they're a beltway lobby group, they've even received two federal anti-trafficking grants! But all the big players have lined up behind this. Sam Brownback, in the Senate, who's extremely close to the movement, is perhaps the key point person in Congress.

by Esther Kaplan on Wed May 10, 2006 at 11:12:53 AM EST

I should have cautioned, in my original post, that only US-based NGOs enjoy Constitutional protections. So groups based in Brazil, or Thailand, or Vietnam, or India...they're still stuck with the old U.S. restrictions, whether the abortion gag rule or the prostitution pledge. The question is whether this decision could be used to put political pressure on the administration and Congress to ease those restrictions as well. We do claim to be spreading democracy abroad, right?

by Esther Kaplan on Wed May 10, 2006 at 11:22:24 AM EST

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