By: Ashland Johnson, FellowPosted on December 30, 2011 Issues: Abortion Health Care & Reproductive Rights

Anti-abortion advocates were in rare form during the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution 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. Throughout the hearing pro-PRENDA committee members shamelessly misappropriated and exploited civil rights and women’s rights history in their crusade to rebrand their “anti-choice” agenda as a “civil rights” agenda. But this proved to be no easy task for pro-PRENDA committee members who unfortunately lacked knowledge of and respect for civil rights and women’s rights. This led to several major offenses that outraged the civil rights community. And it revealed these committee members’ true colors, exposing PRENDA for what it really is — just another attempt to turn back the clock on women’s access to safe, legal abortion care.  

Offense #1: Misappropriating the Names of Susan B. Anthony and Fredrick Douglass

It is not uncommon for legislators to name bills after people who, either through influence or personal advocacy, have a special connection to the legislation. The Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which extends the federal hate crimes law to cover crimes based on perceived sexual orientation and disability, was named after two men who were victims of hate crimes. The Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, an act that combats pay discrimination against women, was named after the woman who had the courage and stamina to challenge the pay discrimination she had faced for almost two decades.

But in the instance of PRENDA, a bill that bans abortion based on race and sex, the names attached to the bill have very little to do with the bill itself (other than the fact that Susan B. Anthony is a woman and Frederick Douglass is black). As highlighted by Rep. Conyers (D-Michigan), a longtime civil rights advocate, Frederick Douglass did not take any public position on abortion rights or “prenatal nondiscrimination.” The same is true for Susan B. Anthony. While her views on abortion are highly debated, she is not known to personally have taken any public stance on the issue. Rather, these two civil rights heroes advocated for improving the lives of black people and women by expanding their rights and fighting to remove the social and legal infirmities that came with race and sex. PRENDA, in effect, would do the opposite. This law would discourage doctors from providing health care to women of color by threatening them with jail time. As I pointed out in Part 1, one of the witnesses in support of PRENDA admitted that doctors would have to racially profile their patients to identify “offenders.” 

Offense #2: Distorting Civil Rights History and America’s Legacy of Discrimination to Bolster PRENDA’s Legitimacy

Rep. Franks (R-Arizona), the chairman of the subcommittee and PRENDA sponsor, opened the hearing with a distorted version of U.S. civil rights history. In his creative history lesson, Rep. Franks stated:

American women overcame the mindless policy that deprived them of the right to vote and we then stormed into Europe and arrested the hellish Nazi holocaust. We crushed the Ku Klux Klan and prevailed in the dark days of our own civil rights struggle. And in so many ways we’ve made great progress in the area of civil rights in this country. But there is one glaring exception. We have overlooked unborn children. (Italics added for emphasis)

My first thought upon hearing this statement was “who is the ‘we’ that he keeps referencing?” Surely, he couldn’t mean himself and others who support PRENDA. Perhaps he forgot that these were the same type of social conservatives that fought tooth-and-nail to deny women equal rights.  Also, when did “we” eradicate the Klan? Last time I checked, they were alive and well. In fact, a number of their views have found their way into mainstream politics.

Rep. Franks attempted to reframe their anti-choice campaign as a natural extension of the civil rights movement. Moreover, this self-serving and distorted civil rights history lesson incorrectly conveyed that PRENDA sponsors, like Rep. Franks, have always marched alongside women and black Americans instead of legislating against their rights, as described in Part 1.

In addition to Rep. Franks’s misleading statements, other pro-PRENDA committee members made equally troubling comments. For example, when speaking about the struggles faced by women and people of color, Rep. King (R-Iowa) stated that throughout history “women and minorities have found themselves at a disadvantage.” Women and racial minorities have not just “found themselves at a disadvantage.” They were actively placed there, often at the hands of white men. Moreover, to claim that what women and people of color have faced in this country’s history was merely a “disadvantage” is extremely insulting. If Rep. King and other PRENDA supporters ever hope to pass themselves off as even quasi civil rights advocates, they would be wise to gain a better understanding and respect for the history. 

Offense #3: Disavowing the Need for Civil Rights Protections

Only an hour into the hearing on this new “civil rights” initiative, Rep. King (R-Iowa), a PRENDA supporter, advocated taking away the very protections that make exercising civil rights possible. Rep. King disdainfully referred to “civil rights protections” as “special protections” and stated:

From my standpoint, I wanted to take a lot of that special protection language out of there for the born people because I think it has, to a large degree it has, served a successful purpose. And most people now do have something much closer to equal opportunity today than existed when I was a young man growing up. (Italics added for emphasis)

This candid statement shows how little PRENDA supporters care about real civil rights. Moreover, it shows how little they have in common with actual civil rights advocates. Civil rights laws serve as basic protections to help eliminate barriers that would prevent a person from fully engaging as an equal citizen. These laws are meant to help put all people on equal footing as citizens. Such protections are especially important to women and people of color given the widespread discrimination they continue to face in employment, housing and education. Unfortunately Rep. King failed to appreciate this and disrespected the many Americans who actually live with the reality of discrimination.

In the end, no matter how they try to spin it, PRENDA supporters can’t get around the fact that “prenatal discrimination” has never been a part of a civil rights agenda. It’s a part of the anti-choice agenda, an agenda that actually harms women of color, undermining their right to make decisions about what is best for their own lives.


Read Part 1 of this blog here.

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