By: Ashland Johnson, FellowPosted on December 21, 2011 Issues: Abortion Health Care & Reproductive Rights

On December 6, 2011, the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution held a hearing on H.R. 3541, the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2011 (“PRENDA”).  The bill would criminalize race and sex selective abortions. According to the sponsors of the bill, it addresses the disproportionality high rate of abortions among black women and combats abortions performed in the name of son preference in some Asian communities.

Now, it is no surprise that the attacks on women’s reproductive rights continue unabated. But what’s unique (and absurd) about this particular attack is the way those opposed to women’s reproductive rights are shamelessly misappropriating civil right language and history in an attempt to bolster the legitimacy of their assault on women and to distract us from their true intentions. This absurdity was in full display in last week’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on PRENDA.

Throughout the hearing, women’s rights advocates, including many women of color, watched in amazement and disbelief as many committee members who have historically ignored their needs tried to convince the public (and possibly themselves) that they were the true champions of civil rights and women’s rights. Rep. Trent Franks (R-Arizona), the chairman of the committee and sponsor of the bill, led this charge, opening the hearing with a distorted version of our country’s civil rights history and deceptively invoking civil rights icons and civil rights activism for his own misguided purposes. (For more on this brazen misappropriation of civil rights history, stay tuned for part 2 of this blog.)

Adding to the irony, committee members supporting this bill, who all happen to be Republicans, have horrendous civil rights and women’s rights voting records. In the past year, these same members have had multiple opportunities to show their commitment to improving the lives of women and children, but consistently have failed to do so. When both the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (H.R.11) and the Paycheck Fairness Act (H.R. 12) needed support, every single one of these committee members voted against these attempts to help combat pay discrimination against women. When committee members had the opportunity to improve the lives of children of immigrants by voting for the Children’s Health Insurance Program Reauthorization Act of 2009 (H.R. 2), not one member who claimed to care so much for these children voted “yes.” And when those committee members who support PRENDA were given the chance to improve the lives of millions of uninsured women and children by passing the Affordable Care Act (H.R. 4872), they turned it down. But did those who support PRENDA let something as significant as their voting record derail their effort to rebrand their anti-abortion campaign as a civil rights campaign? Absolutely not. Instead, they repeatedly congratulated themselves for their courage to hold a hearing on this widespread “problem.” And they said word “equality”…a lot.

In their attempt to support their claims, both pro-PRENDA House members and their witnesses relied on mistruths, half-truths, or simply made things up. For example, to support their argument that black children need to be protected from the “genocide” caused by race selective abortions, Rep. King (R-Iowa) and expert witness, Steven H. Aden, claimed that most abortion clinics are “strategically” placed in black neighborhoods. In reality, only 1 and 10 abortion clinics are located in predominantly black neighborhoods. Bill supporters also cited the high rate of abortions among African American women as apparent “evidence” of their participation in a genocidal conspiracy. What bill supporters failed to mention was that black women have higher rates of unintended pregnancies. It is these unintended pregnancies, and not race, that contributes to their higher rate of abortions. In the end, even pro-PRENDA witness Steven H. Aden had to admit that he did not believe black women were having abortions because of their desire not to have black children.

Moreover, when it came to sex selective abortions—a problem for which there is some limited data showing that it occurs in the United States—PRENDA supporters repeatedly showed how out of touch they are with the very women they claim they are trying to protect. For starters, one pro-PRENDA congressman repeatedly and mistakenly referred to U.S. Indian immigrants as “Native Americans,” revealing the true depth of his knowledge of the communities he purportedly wants to protect. The criminalization of sex selective abortions is out of step with the wisdom of reproductive justice groups with more experience and success combating this issue. These groups discourage sex selective abortion bans, instead advocating for policies that address the roots of this problem—gender stereotypes and systemic gender inequality. The solution lies in policies that promote gender quality, protect women from domestic violence, and elevate the social and legal status of women and girls.

Ultimately, banning abortion does not help women and people of color with the real problems that impact their reproductive lives, or overcome any reproductive oppression they might face. Those who wish to make all abortions illegal have introduced a misinformed, offensive, and constitutionally-suspect piece of legislation. The truth is, if enacted, PRENDA would do more to hurt the communities that it claims to protect than it ever would do to help them. Since PRENDA subjects doctors to criminal punishment if the doctor has knowledge that they are performing an abortion motivated by race or sex, it could discourage doctors from performing ultrasounds which can help alert a woman of any potential medical complications. Some doctors might even refrain from performing an abortion on a woman who is of Asian or African descent, since she belongs to a “suspect” group targeted in the bill. A witness in support of the bill, Steven H. Aden, testified that under the law doctors would have an obligation to question certain women who “come from one of the populations that has a proclivity towards this kind of coerced abortions.” As such, this bill mandates racial profiling by doctors, subjecting women of color to scrutiny that other women would not have to face. This couldn’t be further from what I had in mind when I think of efforts to advance the cause of civil rights.

Despite its absurdity, unfortunately, this is likely not the last we will hear of PRENDA.


Read Part 2 of this blog here.