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Human Trafficking: A Lacuna in Catholic Ethics

Human Trafficking: A Lacuna in Catholic Ethics

Nichole M. Flores

The persistence of human trafficking, a form of modern day slavery, is a cruel irony in the United States, a nation that claims to be committed to the ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality. While accurate statistical data on trafficking is infamously difficult to obtain, the Polaris Project estimates that 20 million people are trafficked globally, with hundreds of thousands trafficked into the U.S.. The U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (P.L.106-386) and its reauthorizations (H.R.2620, 2003 and HR7311, 2008) take important steps to rectify this enslavement, but trafficking persists in the shadows of global supply chains that undergird agricultural, domestic, service, and sexual economies. Traffickers prey on the vulnerability of people on society’s margins: women and girls, migrants, and the very poor. These figures only hint at trafficking’s corrosive effect on the project of justice, equality, and freedom in the U.S. and beyond.

While trafficking persists in the global economy, Catholic ethicists have struggled to articulate cogent responses that can inform practical resistance to this blatant violation of human dignity. This analysis suffers, in part, from the broad consensus among ethicists and others about the immorality of human trafficking: it is an evil that should be stopped, but many have stopped short of engaging in crucial descriptive and analytical debates that can strengthen with moral suasion the vibrant anti-trafficking movement. What is needed is a sustained moral analysis that presses for the theological responses that undergird liberative solidarity.

Still, the consensus about the fundamental evil of trafficking offers a helpful starting point for an anti-trafficking ethics. Even as trafficking festers in the global economy, international religious and political communities agree that it is a violation of inherent dignity and equality that are the foundation of universal of human rights. Pope Francis, in accord with rights discourse in Catholic social teaching, blames the commodifying tendencies of the “throwaway culture”—in which human beings, animals, and the environment are viewed as expendable objects rather than as having intrinsic value—for promoting economies that deny basic human rights. Francis’s emphasis on human dignity resonates beyond the Catholic context, echoing a global affirmation of basic human dignity and its associated individual and communal rights. This consensus was on display at the  2014 International Day for the Abolition of Slavery, when representatives from the Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish, Orthodox, Anglican, and Catholic traditions gathered to sign the Joint Declaration of Religious Leaders Against Slavery.

The academic and interreligious affirmation of dignity yields diverse practical responses to trafficking and modern day slavery. These responses can be broadly categorized as structural or personal. Proponents of structural responses, exemplified by the Polaris Project, advocate for legal and regulatory changes that enable governmental actors to protect victims and vulnerable populations from exploitation, advocating economic, immigration, and youth policy reforms. Proponents of personal responses to trafficking emphasize the centrality of personal agency, including changes in consumer. For example, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a Florida-based organization of agricultural laborers that advocates against trafficking in U.S. fields, leverages restaurant and grocery store consumer support in order to convince corporations to pay fair wages and enforce a human rights code of conduct throughout their supply chains. An integral response to human trafficking—matching a comprehensive political response with transformation of personal consumption practices—is crucial to restoring violated agency and securing human rights and capabilities for trafficking victims. Such claims remain in need of further elaboration in ethical discourse.

The subtle tension between structural and personal responses to trafficking illuminates an important contribution to be made by Catholic ethicists. Our collective analytical resources can be of great service to anti-trafficking coalitions. Toward leveraging these resources, some conferences and academic sessions have focused on crucial contributions that theological ethics make to this thinking. But more work is required beyond navigating the somewhat superficial divides between our specializations of context-based and fundamental, social, ecological and philosophical ethics. Moreover, these responses must be pursued in a global and interdisciplinary context that fosters a broader vision in pursuit of the global common good of which the protection of human dignity figures prominently.

Ethical analysis is needed, as is sustained engagement with communities and organizations dedicated to subverting systems and transforming practices that perpetuate human trafficking. Communities of practical commitment often shape our agenda and interrogate our responses; however, critical dialogic engagement remains underutilized if not untried. Such engagement on the part of Catholic ethicists to intellectual solidarity demands an embodied, practical solidarity to undermine human trafficking in the 21st century.