(CNSNews.com) - CNSNews.com has learned that an unlikely coalition of feminists, family planning advocates and conservatives is protesting an effort by the Clinton administration to weaken international laws against the trafficking of women and children for prostitution.
Christian conservatives William Bennett and Charles Colson have joined with feminists Gloria Steinem, Planned Parenthood head Gloria Feldt and National Organization for Women president Patricia Ireland to form a new campaign called Initiative Against Sexual Trafficking.
"Both left and right are joining together to fight what is a growing menace," Austin Ruse, director of the Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute at the United Nations, told CNSNews.com in an interview. CFHRI is an independent organization closely monitoring the legislation.
At issue is a proposal before the United Nations, backed by the United States, that calls for the word "trafficking" to be redefined to include only those women who become prostitutes against their will. The coalition of feminists and conservatives opposes what it considers a bid by the Clinton administration and several European nations to loosen international rules governing sexual trafficking of women and girls.
The administration supports wording that would define "forced" prostitution as a form of "sexual exploitation," but not other types of prostitution.
"There is universal agreement that the trafficking of women and children for prostitution is a growing menace for the people involved and for governments," Ruse told CNSNews.com. "Though most prevalent in the developing world, even in the United States women are lured into positions of sexual slavery from which they can rarely escape."
Human rights groups estimate that hundreds of thousands of women and children around the world are forced into prostitution every year. Many are transported across international borders by criminal organization in the process.
The Clinton administration defended the change, saying the US risked alienating other governments and undermining international support for the treaty if it pressed for a definition of sexual exploitation that included all forms of prostitution.
A number of European governments that have legalized prostitution might refuse to sign the treaty unless it made a distinction between forced prostitution and situations in which women choose freely to become prostitutes, the administration said.
"The suggestion that we are trying to weaken laws on international trafficking of prostitutes is nonsense," State Department spokesman James Rubin said at a news conference on Wednesday.
But in a letter to the State Department last week, a copy of which was made available to CNSNews.com, feminist organizations accused the administration of taking a position that was "extremely detrimental to women" in their negotiations.
The wording would make it more difficult to prosecute prostitution rings because the definition "would not cover some of the most common methods of sex trafficking which prey on and profit from the economic desperation of women, girls and their families by securing their 'consent,'" the letter said.
Conservatives welcomed the strong stand against prostitution by groups that either traditionally support the Clinton administration or who rarely express an opinion on moral issues.
"The Christian right clearly believes prostitution is a bad thing, and it should remain illegal. The feminists, on the other hand, seem to be in favor of legalization. But to see American feminists getting involved in this distinction is a very interesting and hopeful sign," Ruse told CNSNews.com.
"There is a move among some to change the definition of prostitution to 'sex work' with a view to regularizing it so it's looked upon as just another job. That's what the Clinton administration has brought into the equation," Ruse said.
"Some say they are in favor of this distinction because it would allow prostitutes to organize into unions and have increased protection by police and have better medical benefits.
"But what the feminists understand and what the Christian right understands is that all prostitution exploits women, degrades women, degrades men, degrades society, and therefore, any move to regularize it is a mistake and morally wrong. We should not legalize prostitution in order to condemn trafficking," Ruse said.