The sponsors of H.R. 3541are using the guise of “ending discrimination against female babies,” which sounds like a good cause, in order to ban abortion for the very people it pretends to protect: Asian American women. We recognize that this is simply a particularly demeaning way for anti-choice legislators to limit abortion access.
See all our coverage of the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) here and all our coverage of sex selection here.
Before the clock runs out on another Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, anti-choice legislators have decided to send the Asian American community home with a parting gift. This Wednesday, HR 3541, the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) will be put to a vote in the House. PRENDA would ban abortions sought based on the sex of a fetus, threaten doctors with up to five years in prison for performing such a procedure, and even require doctors and nurses to report women whom they suspect are seeking an abortion for these reasons. While the bill is cloaked in the language of civil rights for women, this bill is a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Rather than lifting the status of women, this bill is nothing more than another hypocritical attempt to ban abortions in this country – this time using Asian women as the excuse.
In my testimony at the subcommittee hearing on this bill in December, I referred to this bill as “PRENDA the pretenda.” The sponsors of this bill are using the guise of “ending discrimination against female babies,” which sounds like a good cause, in order to ban abortion for the very people it pretends to protect: Asian American women. We recognize that this is simply a particularly demeaning way for anti-choice legislators to limit abortion access.
The hypocrisy of the bills sponsors becomes even more clear when we look at their voting records. They have never supported the numerous measures that would improve the living conditions of women and people of color — like the Voting Rights Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, and the Violence Against Women Act.
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Let me be clear. Sex selection, particularly in the international context, is a real concern, and skewed sex ratios in India, China, Vietnam, and even the country of Georgia are troubling. Domestically in the United States, we are not confronted by the same skewed sex ratios. However, we are well aware that gender inequality in the United States does exist, and that for some families, the desire to have a son – particularly in families who already have two or more daughters is very strong. NAPAWF, and our friends in the Asian American community are working hard to address the gender inequity in this country that contributes to son preference. But rather than truly addressing gender inequity, this bill, PRENDA the pretenda’ discriminates against our community.
Numerous international agencies have firmly stated that abortion bans are not a viable solution to the problem of sex selection. Not only have bans been unsuccessful in other countries, but they also would violate the human rights of women. Instead, governments should help alleviate the root cause of son preference and sex selection — gender inequity. It is because of gender inequity that some women feel pressured to have sons. This is especially true in countries where men are the breadwinners and legal inheritors of property. However, there are effective strategies available: in South Korea, skewed sex ratios at birth began to level out as the country developed economically, property laws were changed, and a “Love Your Daughter” media campaign was launched.
Asian American women’s organizations are already doing the work to raise the status of women in the United States. We work hard every day to end domestic violence and sexual assault, build women’s economic power, and eradicate gender stereotyping. If H.R.3541 sponsors truly wanted to help women, they would start by following our lead, not by enacting a paternalistic and misguided law that would do more harm than good.
Asian American women already face grave health disparities and barriers to health access. Nearly 18 percent of Asian Americans and 24 percent of Native Hawaiians are uninsured while only 12 percent of the non-Hispanic, non-elderly white population is without insurance. Over 29 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander women have not had a mammogram for the past two years, and over 24 percent have not had a Pap Test in three years. We do not need another obstacle. This bill exacerbates disparities by further restricting access to comprehensive health care services and penalizing health care providers who serve women from our community.
H.R. 3541 is an attack on women in our community and we are speaking out. We will not be used as a weapon in the war on women.
The legislation would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have "a reasonable fear" that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit.
Domestic violence survivors often face a number of barriers that prevent them from leaving abusive situations. But a new bill awaiting action in the Pennsylvania legislature would let survivors in the state break their rental lease without financial repercussions—potentially allowing them to avoid penalties to their credit and rental history that could make getting back on their feet more challenging. Still, the bill is just one of several policy improvements necessary to help survivors escape abusive situations.
Right now in Pennsylvania, landlords can take action against survivors who break their lease as a means of escape. That could mean a lien against the survivor or an eviction on their credit report. The legislation, HB 1051, introduced by Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Montgomery County), would allow victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and stalking to terminate their lease early or request locks be changed if they have “a reasonable fear” that they will continue to be harmed while living in their unit. The bipartisan bill, which would amend the state’s Landlord and Tenant Act, requires survivors to give at least 30 days’ notice of their intent to be released from the lease.
Research shows survivors often return to or delay leaving abusive relationships because they either can’t afford to live independently or have little to no access to financial resources. In fact, a significant portion of homeless women have cited domestic violence as the leading cause of homelessness.
“As a society, we get mad at survivors when they don’t leave,” Kim Pentico, economic justice program director of the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV), told Rewire. “You know what, her name’s on this lease … That’s going to impact her ability to get and stay safe elsewhere.”
“This is one less thing that’s going to follow her in a negative way,” she added.
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Pennsylvania landlords have raised concerns about the law over liability and rights of other tenants, said Ellen Kramer, deputy director of program services at the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which submitted a letter in support of the bill to the state House of Representatives. Lawmakers have considered amendments to the bill—like requiring “proof of abuse” from the courts or a victim’s advocate—that would heed landlord demands while still attempting to protect survivors.
But when you ask a survivor to go to the police or hospital to obtain proof of abuse, “it may put her in a more dangerous position,” Kramer told Rewire, noting that concessions that benefit landlords shift the bill from being victim-centered.
“It’s a delicate balancing act,” she said.
The Urban Affairs Committee voted HB 1051 out of committee on May 17. The legislation was laid on the table on June 23, but has yet to come up for a floor vote. Whether the bill will move forward is uncertain, but proponents say that they have support at the highest levels of government in Pennsylvania.
“We have a strong advocate in Governor Wolf,” Kramer told Rewire.
Financial Abuse in Its Many Forms
Economic violence is a significant characteristic of domestic violence, advocates say. An abuser will often control finances in the home, forcing their victim to hand over their paycheck and not allow them access to bank accounts, credit cards, and other pecuniary resources. Many abusers will also forbid their partner from going to school or having a job. If the victim does work or is a student, the abuser may then harass them on campus or at their place of employment until they withdraw or quit—if they’re not fired.
Abusers may also rack up debt, ruin their partner’s credit score, and cancel lines of credit and insurance policies in order to exact power and control over their victim. Most offenders will also take money or property away from their partner without permission.
“Financial abuse is so multifaceted,” Pentico told Rewire.
Pentico relayed the story of one survivor whose abuser smashed her cell phone because it would put her in financial dire straits. As Pentico told it, the abuser stole her mobile phone, which was under a two-year contract, and broke it knowing that the victim could not afford a new handset. The survivor was then left with a choice of paying for a bill on a phone she could no longer use or not paying the bill at all and being turned into collections, which would jeopardize her ability to rent her own apartment or switch to a new carrier. “Things she can’t do because he smashed her smartphone,” Pentico said.
“Now the general public [could] see that as, ‘It’s a phone, get over it,'” she told Rewire. “Smashing that phone in a two-year contract has such ripple effects on her financial world and on her ability to get and stay safe.”
Why people fail to make this connection can be attributed, in part, to the lack of legal remedy for financial abuse, said Carol Tracy, executive director of the Women’s Law Project, a public interest law center in Pennsylvania. A survivor can press criminal charges or seek a civil protection order when there’s physical abuse, but the country’s legal justice system has no equivalent for economic or emotional violence, whether the victim is married to their abuser or not, she said.
Some advocates, in lieu of recourse through the courts, have teamed up with foundations to give survivors individual tools to use in economically abusive situations. In 2005, the NNEDV partnered with the Allstate Foundation to develop a curriculum that would teach survivors about financial abuse and financial safety. Through the program, survivors are taught about financial safety planning including individual development accounts, IRA, microlending credit repair, and credit building services.
State coalitions can receive grant funding to develop or improve economic justice programs for survivors, as well as conduct economic empowerment and curriculum trainings with local domestic violence groups. In 2013—the most recent year for which data is available—the foundation awarded $1 million to state domestic violence coalitions in grants that ranged from $50,000 to $100,000 to help support their economic justice work.
So far, according to Pentico, the curriculum has performed “really great” among domestic violence coalitions and its clients. Survivors say they are better informed about economic justice and feel more empowered about their own skills and abilities, which has allowed them to make sounder financial decisions.
This, in turn, has allowed them to escape abuse and stay safe, she said.
“We for a long time chose to see money and finances as sort of this frivolous piece of the safety puzzle,” Pentico told Rewire. “It really is, for many, the piece of the puzzle.”
“That’s where [economic abuse] gets complicated,” Tracy told Rewire. “Some of it is the fault of the abuser, and some of it is the public policy failures that just don’t value women’s participation in the workforce.”
Victims working low-wage jobs often cannot save enough to leave an abusive situation, advocates say. What they do make goes toward paying bills, basic living needs, and their share of housing expenses—plus child-care costs if they have kids. In the end, they’re not left with much to live on—that is, if their abuser hasn’t taken away access to their own earnings.
“The ability to plan your future, the ability to get away from [abuse], that takes financial resources,” Tracy told Rewire. “It’s just so much harder when you don’t have them and when you’re frightened, and you’re frightened for yourself and your kids.”
Public labor policy can also inhibit a survivor’s ability to escape. This year, five states, Washington, D.C., and 24 jurisdictions will have passed or enacted paid sick leave legislation, according to A Better Balance, a family and work legal center in New York City. As of April, only one of those states—California—also passed a state paid family leave insurance law, which guarantees employees receive pay while on leave due to pregnancy, disability, or serious health issues. (New Jersey, Rhode Island, Washington, and New York have passed similar laws.) Without access to paid leave, Tracy said, survivors often cannot “exercise one’s rights” to file a civil protection order, attend court hearings, or access housing services or any other resource needed to escape violence.
Still, that doesn’t necessarily translate into practice. For example, the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 26 percent of transgender people were let go or fired because of anti-trans bias, while 50 percent of transgender workers reported on-the-job harassment. Research shows transgender people are at a higher risk of being fired because of their trans identity, which would make it harder for them to leave an abusive relationship.
“When issues like that intersect with domestic violence, it’s devastating,” Tracy told Rewire. “Frequently it makes it harder, if not impossible, for [victims] to leave battering situations.”
For many survivors, their freedom from abuse also depends on access to public benefits. Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), the child and dependent care credit, and earned income tax credit give low-income survivors access to the money and resources needed to be on stable economic ground. One example: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where a family of three has one full-time nonsalary worker earning $10 an hour, SNAP can increase their take-home income by up to 20 percent.
These programs are “hugely important” in helping lift survivors and their families out of poverty and offset the financial inequality they face, Pentico said.
“When we can put cash in their pocket, then they may have the ability to then put a deposit someplace or to buy a bus ticket to get to family,” she told Rewire.
By slashing spending and imposing severe restrictions on public benefits, politicians are guaranteeing domestic violence survivors will remain stuck in a cycle of poverty, advocates say. They will stay tethered to their abuser because they will be unable to have enough money to live independently.
“When women leave in the middle of the night with the clothes on their back, kids tucked under their arms, come into shelter, and have no access to finances or resources, I can almost guarantee you she’s going to return,” Pentico told Rewire. “She has to return because she can’t afford not to.”
By contrast, advocates say that improving a survivor’s economic security largely depends on a state’s willingness to remedy what they see as public policy failures. Raising the minimum wage, mandating equal pay, enacting paid leave laws, and prohibiting employment discrimination—laws that benefit the entire working class—will make it much less likely that a survivor will have to choose between homelessness and abuse.
States can also pass proactive policies like the bill proposed in Pennsylvania, to make it easier for survivors to leave abusive situations in the first place. Last year, California enacted a law that similarly allows abuse survivors to terminate their lease without getting a restraining order or filing a police report permanent. Virginia also put in place an early lease-termination law for domestic violence survivors in 2013.
A “more equitable distribution of wealth is what we need, what we’re talking about,” Tracy told Rewire.
As Pentico put it, “When we can give [a survivor] access to finances that help her get and stay safe for longer, her ability to protect herself and her children significantly increases.”
All of the letter’s 56 signatories are people of color who have had abortions. They say the bill would force providers to interrogate patients’ reasons for seeking care and “erect a political divide” between patients and their physicians.
Introduced by Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ), chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice, the bill seeks to impose criminal penalties on providers who perform abortions knowing that they are sought on the basis of the fetus’ race or sex.
It also seeks to criminalize anyone who coerces a person into seeking a race- or sex-selective abortion; anyone who raises funds for the procedure; or anyone who transports a woman into the United States or across state lines to obtain the abortion—and imposes a penalty ranging from a fine to a five-year prison term.
Cloaked in the language of “nondiscrimination,” the act would achieve the opposite goal, the letter says, by singling out women of color for additional scrutiny based on, among other things, the “gross mischaracterization” of Asian-American communities, in particular, as having a preference for male over female children.
This assumption, referred to in the bill as “son preference,” has no medical or empirical basis—as the letter points out, and as research has shown, birth sex ratios indicate that Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are having more girls on average than their white counterparts.
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All of the letter’s 56 signatories are people of color who have had abortions. They say the bill would force providers to interrogate patients’ reasons for seeking care and “erect a political divide” between patients and their physicians, essentially transforming abortion seekers of color into “suspects in the exam room.”
Signatories say they are deeply troubled by the bill’s racist language, which came to the fore at a recent House hearing during which anti-choice activists and other witnesses evoked a history of eugenics by way of supporting the bill, essentially equating women who choose abortion care to slave owners and white supremacists.
“Several people of color—including immigrant folks, queer folks, and Black folks—walked out of that hearing feeling disgusted by the way terrible stereotypes were used to twist our history, and then put into the congressional record,” Renee Bracey Sherman, one of the original drafters of the letter, said in an interview with Rewire.
“It was so deeply offensive to have to sit there and listen to people like Catherine Davis [of the anti-choice National Black Pro-Life Coalition] invoke the names of Black civil rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King and Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), saying, ‘They did not march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge so that Black women could have abortions.’”
She pointed out that King was a strong supporter of family planning, while Lewis has been an outspoken proponent of reproductive justice and abortion rights.
Bracey Sherman also said she was disturbed by the fact that Alveda King, a prominent figure in the anti-choice movement, was allowed to submit her testimony in a letter to Congress.
“I kept thinking, She doesn’t speak for me,” Bracey Sherman told Rewire. “I didn’t want her words to be the only ones representing people of color who’ve had abortions, because the overwhelming majority of us don’t regret our choices. I felt that we needed a voice too, we needed our testimony to be heard.”
Bracey Sherman, together with Kristine Kippins, who is the federal policy counsel for the U.S. Policy and Advocacy Program at the Center for Reproductive Rights, and Shivana Jorawar spent the weekend drafting the letter.
“This letter was very personal for me as a Black woman who has had an abortion,” Kippins told Rewire in a phone interview. “I’d never publicly said that I’d had an abortion, and this has really compelled me to speak out.”
She recalled the moment in last week’s hearing when Chairman Franks repeatedly silenced Miriam Yeung, the executive director of National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum and the only pro-choice witness at the hearing.
“At one point Yeung said very quietly, ‘Black women choose abortion,’” Kippins said. “And I realized, she was talking about me. So I felt I had to stand up and say, ‘Yes, I am one of those women, I chose abortion and it was the best possible thing for me. I need people to trust me, and women like me, to make those decisions for ourselves,’” she added.
Her words echo the efforts of reproductive justice advocates like those in the Trust Black Women Partnership who have long fought to assert Black women’s bodily autonomy and push back against a wave of discriminatory laws that directly target or disproportionately impact Black women. These include a recent rash of anti-choice laws that impose medically unnecessary safety regulations on providers and force women to delay care by insisting on multiple medical appointments.
“If legislators actually care about women’s health they should work towards making abortion available to our community. They should vote the Women’s Health Protection Act, and the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act into law,” Kippins stated.
“We need access to housing, job opportunities, education for the children we already have. Lawmakers need to stop wasting our time and taxpayers’ money with bills like this and start addressing the civil rights and economic needs of the Black community and our Asian and Latina sisters and brothers,” she said.
Drafters of the letter say the current proposed act echoes these same cultural and racial stereotypes, and represents a blatant attempt to control women’s bodies.
“As an Indo-Caribbean woman, I can think for myself—I don’t need oversight from misogynist and paternalist politicians,” Shivana Jorawar said in a phone interview with Rewire.
Jorawar had her abortion when she was in high school. She was 15 years old at the time, harboring dreams of becoming a lawyer and making her family proud.
“My parents were immigrants from Guyana. They came here with almost nothing to their name, and access to education was really an important part of their American dream,” Jorawar explained, adding that they sacrificed almost everything they had to pay for tuition and send her to the best possible schools, working minimum-wage jobs around the clock to do so.
“They uprooted themselves and crossed borders and oceans to get to this strange land only to be greeted by discrimination. So to me, in that moment when I found out I was pregnant, I just felt I could not let my family down by ruining my chances at academic success,” Jorawar said.
She had the abortion and went on to become the first lawyer in her family.
“Every time I see my parents beaming with pride when they introduce me to new people and say ‘My daughter is a lawyer,’ or every time a young woman in my community comes to me for mentorship, I’m reminded that I made the right decision for my life,” she told Rewire.
“So this suggestion that we can’t make our own decisions, that we are not people capable of having a vision for our lives, is just incredibly insulting and it needs to stop,” she said.