Supreme Court acknowledges that sex workers are human beings

Illustration for article titled Supreme Court acknowledges that sex workers are human beings

Since 2003, the US federal government had a disturbing and anti-science restriction on the allocation of funding to groups combatting HIV/AIDS abroad. To receive funds, the groups had to state that they were anti-prostitution. Now the Supreme Court has struck this rule down, ruling it unconstitutional.


First a little backstory on this. Most groups who deal with studying or preventing HIV/AIDS know that sex workers are one of the groups most vulnerable to the disease — they are also a major vector in its spread. So, to be an effective AIDS prevention organization, you would want these groups to focus especially on getting education out to sex workers on how to prevent AIDS. Maybe we'd want sex workers to have access to free or low-cost HIV tests, too.

The point is, one of the very best ways to prevent a sexually-transmitted disease from spreading is to include sex workers in your studies and healthcare outreach programs. It's what doctors did during World War I in their effort to stop syphillis, and it's obviously a tried-and-true method. But in 2003, Congress enacted a law (the United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003) that denied funding to any group working in foreign countries that wasn't actively condemning sex workers. This wasn't just a law to stop AIDS groups from helping sex workers abroad, which is already problematic from the perspective of epidemiology. It went beyond that to say that these groups had to be anti-prostitution.

And now the Supreme Court has ruled that this law violated the First Amendment.

Over on the SCOTUS blog, Kevin Russell explains the Court's logic:

The Court held unconstitutional a provision of a statute – called the United States Leadership Against HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria Act of 2003 – that required any group that accepted funding for combatting these diseases abroad to have a “policy explicitly opposing prostitution.” That requirement, the Court held, violates the First Amendment . . .

Congress did more than simply prohibit funding recipients from using federal funds to promote legalization of prostitution; it required them to have a blanket policy against prostitution. That policy would necessarily extend to all aspects of their operations, not just the federally funded program. It is impossible, the Court said, for a group to publicly claim that it is against prostitution while administering the federally funded part of its program, then take the opposite position when acting on its own “time and dime.” Thus, the condition amounted to an unconstitutional attempt to leverage federal funds to prohibit indirectly speech Congress could not prohibit directly, in violation of the First Amendment.

Any health organization that's required to condemn a group of people — regardless of who those people are — is not a true health organization. And any government that forces health workers to condemn certain people is undermining its own healthcare system. Luckily, the Supreme Court has recognized this, and stopped this anti-science law from doing more damage.

Read the Court's full opinion here.




1. The ruling doesn't take a stand on the morality issue. It simply says it violates first-amendment rights to require a group to have an explicit policy opposing the practice of prostitution. So your headline is inaccurate in that the court takes no stand whatsoever on prostitution.

2. Please don't confuse opposing a practice with treating those who participate in that practice as not human. I disapprove very strongly with quite a lot of things that people do around me, and that doesn't lead me to treat them as not human. Many opponents of prostitution in fact think the prostitutes themselves are the victims.

3. It's certainly possible to oppose prostitution while trying to help prostitutes avoid STDs. So how is this policy remotely anti-science? It's not as if they required people to refuse to help prostitutes or acted as if prostitution doesn't spread STDs. It may be bad policy, and it may violate the first amendment, but it isn't anti-science.