How Anti-‘Abortion Trafficking’ Laws Actually *Harm* Youth Trafficking Survivors

Anti-abortion legislators are trying to exert the same kind of control over young people’s bodies that actual trafficking depends on.

Teenagers protest the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health case on July 2, 2022, on the main street in Driggs, Idaho—one of the most extreme anti-abortion states in the U.S. (Natalie Behring / Getty Images)

In the unrelenting push to end abortion access, young people’s rights face a new threat: In April, Idaho Governor Brad Little (R) signed House Bill (HB) 242 into law—a first-of-its-kind policy that will charge people who help minors access abortion across state lines or procure abortion pills without parental consent, with “abortion trafficking,” a felony punishable by up to five years in prison. Laws like this will likely begin to appear in another anti-abortion states and state legislatures, as restrictive abortion laws tend to spread state to state.

Laws that attempt to limit abortion-related travel force birth on vulnerable young people, including sexually exploited youth. Vigilance is crucial in stopping the spread and ensuring young people get the care they need and deserve.

HB 242’s language names the potential crime “abortion trafficking,” a fallacious and deliberate attempt to spread misinformation on abortion. Minors seeking an abortion and minors who are trafficked may overlap, but equating abortion-seeking to ‘trafficking’ undermines the brutal and inhumane realities that youth trafficking survivors endure.

Ultimately, for vulnerable children, HB 242 codifies the human rights and bodily autonomy abuses that true anti-trafficking laws, like the Trafficking Victims and Protection Act, aim to reduce. Anti-abortion legislators are trying to exert the same kind of control over young people’s bodies that actual trafficking depends on.

Equating abortion-seeking to ‘trafficking’ undermines the brutal and inhumane realities that youth trafficking survivors endure.

Estimates of the number of U.S. young people affected by commercial sexual exploitation are imprecise and have ranged from thousands to millions. For exploited minors, risk of pregnancy is five times that of their adolescent counterparts and associated with sexual, physical and emotional violence—making pregnancy and parenthood dangerous. Exploiters may use pregnancy as a way of strengthening control of a young person and to facilitate increasing abuse; once pregnant, a minor’s ability to leave a trafficking situation erodes. For those experiencing exploitation, access to abortion can be a tool for reproductive freedom. Taking away the opportunity for safe abortion and criminalizing people youth may trust to support them undermines the youth’s reproductive autonomy and can also threaten their lifelong safety.

Even before HB 242, Idaho was already a hostile reproductive environment. Abortion access is nearly non-existent because of a 2022 trigger law banning abortion at all pregnancy stages. Idaho also has a lack of pregnancy care personnel stemming from the closure of labor and delivery services—making the experience of birth in the state risky. HB 242 restricts the last possibility youth have of traveling to neighboring states for safe abortion.

Trafficked youth already struggle to receive stigma-free and trauma-informed reproductive healthcare. Laws like Idaho’s threaten to undermine abortion access for survivors of sexual violence and trafficking. Idaho’s law is a test and will result in forced pregnancies, unsafe abortions and increased powerlessness for youth trafficking survivors in the state and throughout the country.

Adolescent health professionals and advocates must remain vigilant and continue to mobilize a multi-strategy response to ensure adolescents’ reproductive rights amid current assaults, like HB 242. The adoption of shield laws in states like California, Washington, Oregon, Illinois and New York may provide some level of protection for abortion patients who travel out of state for services, and the providers that serve them. Still, ultimately, laws like HB 242 must be stopped. This Idaho law, and the slate of similar bills that are sure to follow, will further complicate an already difficult landscape for trafficked youth seeking autonomous healthcare—a group that is often left out of conversations on abortion.

Up next:

U.S. democracy is at a dangerous inflection point—from the demise of abortion rights, to a lack of pay equity and parental leave, to skyrocketing maternal mortality, and attacks on trans health. Left unchecked, these crises will lead to wider gaps in political participation and representation. For 50 years, Ms. has been forging feminist journalism—reporting, rebelling and truth-telling from the front-lines, championing the Equal Rights Amendment, and centering the stories of those most impacted. With all that’s at stake for equality, we are redoubling our commitment for the next 50 years. In turn, we need your help, Support Ms. today with a donation—any amount that is meaningful to you. For as little as $5 each month, you’ll receive the print magazine along with our e-newsletters, action alerts, and invitations to Ms. Studios events and podcasts. We are grateful for your loyalty and ferocity.

About and

Dr. Aisha Mays is the founder of the Dream Youth Clinic and a clinical researcher with the UCSF Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health whose work centers on reproductive justice for adolescents, including sexually trafficked youth.
Dr. Subasri Narasimhan is an assistant professor at the Rollins School of Public Health and affiliated faculty with the Center for Reproductive Health in the Southeast. Her work examines sexual and reproductive health in the U.S. and internationally.