Commentary Abortion

Disability, Prenatal Testing and the Case for a Moral, Compassionate Abortion

Vyckie Garrison

Having an abortion to prevent a child from being born with Down syndrome or another disability can be a positive moral choice. Okay, now let’s go on (assuming you’re not already plotting my demise).

by Sierra @No Longer Quivering

Note: If the headline didn’t already clue you in, this is controversial subject matter. If you come away from this article thinking that I advocate genocide of a disabled population or the coercion of women pregnant with disabled fetuses into abortion, that I hate disabled people or think that Down syndrome people don’t deserve to live, you have failed to understand my point. Please walk away from the computer, breathe deeply, and start again from the beginning.

I believe that it is possible and desirable to respect disabled people while still working to eliminate genetic disorders so that children who might have had Down syndrome or cystic fibrosis (or any other disease) have a chance to be born without them. I believe that abortion of a disabled fetus can be a compassionate choice made for morally sound reasons, and does not at all conflict with the respect due to disabled people. I am firmly pro-choice, and I believe strongly that the wellbeing of all born persons in a family is paramount before considering the needs of a fetus. My position is that fetuses are incapable of being self-aware and therefore cannot experience suffering the way born persons do. The prevention of suffering is central to my moral beliefs.

If you’re already angry, please stop reading and go get yourself a nice cappuccino. Have a beautiful day. And then, if you still really want to read this, take frequent breaks to punch a pillow with a “hello, my name is Sierra” badge stuck to it.

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Her.meneutics, the “for women” arm of Christianity Today, recently ran an article by Sarah Eekhoff Zylstra on prenatal testing:

What You Need to Know About the Hidden Benefits (and Costs) of New Prenatal Tests

Apparently, science can do something awesome: tell you the genome of your fetus within the second trimester:

Using a blood sample from the mother and saliva from the father, scientists at the University of Washington mapped out the entire genome of a child while he was in the womb. The discovery, which was published June 6 in Science Translational Medicine, makes it possible to spot disorders from sickle cell disease to cystic fibrosis to Down syndrome in the second trimester of pregnancy.

Best of all, at least for those of us who shiver at the thought of an amniocentesis, is that it’s noninvasive.

About 10 percent of the free-floating in a mother’s blood belongs to her baby, and by comparing her blood with her own and the father’s DNA, scientists can pinpoint which DNA belongs to the baby. From there, they can sequence the child’s entire DNA code. Or at least, they can get pretty close. Their accuracy rate was about 98 percent in the infant boy they tested.

Zylstra says that, “at first blush,” this information looks “incredible.” Yes, it does. Because it is. This kind of technology gives us more control over our own reproduction, which means that we’re better able to make ethical decisions about our parenting. As Zylstra points out, parents who are expecting a special needs child can prepare in advance for what that means.

But there’s a catch, says Zylstra:

You can be emotionally prepared for his birth. You could choose a C-section if that was warranted, or line up services for him, or join a support group.Or abort him.That’s the rub, said Gene Rudd, president of the Christian Medical and Dental Associations.

It’s hard to imagine this test wouldn’t be the instigation of selective abortions, since many women with prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome currently abort, he said. “It’s search and destroy that we do that now with Downs,” he said. “And to what benefit do we do that? If we look at the statistics or surveys that come from families that have raised a Downs individual, 97 percent said it was rewarding.”

It’s a life worth living, and many see that, says Amy Julia Becker, who has written extensively about her daughter with Down syndrome. Heart conditions and respiratory troubles often suffered by those with Down syndrome can be treated, life expectancy has risen from 25 to 60, and by all accounts, raising a son or daughter with Down syndrome can be a wonderful gift. The numbers are tricky, but Becker says that about 70 percent of babies prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome are aborted.

“Ultimately, the problem is that we have a society that says it’s okay to kill unborn babies,” Rudd told me. “If that weren’t permissible, this information wouldn’t be misused.” Prenatal testing in a country with legal abortion lets parents decide if that child is “good enough” to live, he said. But as imperfect, capricious, sinful beings, how do we figure we’re smart enough, or good enough, to judge anybody else’s shot at life?

Who are we to say that cystic fibrosis is such an overwhelmingly terrible disease that they shouldn’t be allowed to live?” Rudd said. “Do we say that about a one-year-old who is diagnosed? What’s different about a younger child?”

There are a lot of pieces to this pie, so I’m going to address them problem-by-problem. Ready? Here we go. This article:

  1. Fetishizes disability.
  2. Dehumanizes children.
  3. Downplays economic concerns and long-term viability.
  4. Minimizes the suffering of children and caregivers.
  5. Is logically inconsistent.
  6. Conflates fetuses with born children, and therefore
  7. Devalues labor, delivery and motherhood.
Before we go any farther, here is my main point:
 
Having an abortion to prevent a child from being born with Down syndrome or another disability can be a positive moral choice. Okay, now let’s go on (assuming you’re not already plotting my demise).
 
1. Fetishizing disability
 
The disability rights movement is hugely important and I support it. It’s especially vital for individuals with mental illnesses, who are often judged as “not really disabled” because there’s nothing visibly wrong with them. Disabled people have a long history of being medically abused, used as test subjects without consent, being abandoned or forced to live in squalor, and being generally reviled, disrespected and treated like freaks. We need a movement to rectify that and prevent it from ever happening again. I’m glad we have one.
 
Now. Here’s where I depart from Zylstra and other activists.
 

Respecting the rights of disabled people does not mean honoring or celebrating disability itself. Apart from the perspective and political activism that many disabled people have found via their experiences as a discriminated-against class, I’d wager most people who are disabled would rather not be. Just like poor people value their wisdom but would really rather not be poor. I’ve been a poor kid. I’m still pretty poor. I’ve learned a hell of a lot about empathy from being poor. But would I choose to be poor? No. Would I want others to be poor kids? No. Would I jump at the chance to end poverty once and for all? Yes! I want people to listen to what I’ve learned, but I don’t want them all to have to learn it the hard way, like I did. I would wager that at least some disabled people feel the same.

When you argue that children with Down syndrome are “special gifts” or that raising them is a “rewarding experience” for parents, you are appropriating their difficulties and fetishizing their difference. That is the opposite of respecting a disabled person. I get that who we are is shaped by experience and that many disabled people consider disability to be integral to their personalities – just as I see poverty as a formative experience for me – but I doubt they would have chosen to be disabled in the first place. Would they have voluntarily given up able bodies for the wisdom earned from being disabled? Would they refuse treatment, if it were available? Would they choose to suffer disabilities just so that their parents could have the “reward” and “special gift” of raising them?

Amy Julia Becker of Thin Places writes:

I hate the thought that there will be fewer people with Down syndrome in the world as a result of advances in prenatal testing. As I’ve written before, it impoverishes us all when we selectively abort babies based upon particular characteristics (gender, for instance, in China and India… disabilities here in America).

I understand this argument. I do. I get how parents of Downs children learn from their experiences and love their children fiercely and imagine how empty and cold the world would be without children like theirs. But this line of reasoning makes me profoundly uncomfortable. By all means, love your child! By all means, share your hard-earned wisdom! But to wish for Down syndrome to never go away? to never be cured? Why would you wish that?

I can’t help but think that it’s not about the children’s quality of life (wouldn’t you choose a life for your child that didn’t include Downs, if you could?) but about the parents’ inability to distinguish between their love for their kids and the condition from which their kids suffer. By all means, celebrate your child and his or her wonderful uniqueness! (I say this without irony.) But don’t reduce your child to the mere fact of having Downs, as though having Downs makes them a kind of endangered species and that Down syndrome must continue forever because kids like yours would never exist again without it. Your child would be special, you would have that bond, with or without Downs.

Wanting to eradicate a condition that causes suffering or dependence in a population is not the same as wanting that population to die. Imagine for a moment that we’re not talking about abortion. If it were possible to “cure” Down syndrome prenatally, preserving the same fetus, would you deny your child the treatment because you’d hate to see fewer Down syndrome children in the world?

Which brings me to #2.

2. Dehumanizing children

Focusing on the “rewards” to parents of raising a special needs child means privileging parents’ personal growth over the best interests of their potential child.  If parents choose to bring into this world a child that cannot be reasonably expected to care for himself as an adult, they are gambling with their child’s future. Who will care for him or her when the parents are gone? Do they have the resources to provide for their child’s medical needs? Do they have other children who would be neglected because of their parents’ intense focus on caring for the special needs child?

Now, I understand that many, many Downs people are able to function in the world without immediate care, but others can’t. I think it’s awfully brazen and selfish not to consider one’s potential child’s quality of life for the entire duration of that child’s life before deciding what to do. I think it’s necessary to ask tough questions of yourself, to honestly answer the question of whether or not you can provide that child with everything he or she will need for life.

Special needs children aren’t high-maintenance pets that exist to teach you lessons about fortitude and compassion. They are people. And it’s because a special needs fetus will become a person at birth that abortion should be on the table. Responsible, moral reproductive choices involve doing the hard math and yes, making decisions to either give your child the best possible long, independent life or to terminate the pregnancy early if you know you can’t.

Clinging to a soundbyte belief system that makes your decisions for you (“Abortion is murder!”) or abdicating responsibility (“God will provide as long as I don’t get an abortion!”) means shirking your fundamental duty as a parent: to make decisions with your child’s best interests at heart until your child can do so herself. That responsibility may lead you to give birth to and raise a disabled child – and more power to you! – as long as you’re doing it with your eyes open and taking every possible precaution to make sure you can deliver on the promise of care you are making your newborn child. But it may also mean having an abortion.

It intrigues me that religious people, the ones who are the first to point out the flaws and fallen nature of the world, are the last to acknowledge the result: that horrible things happen, and those situations require hard decisions. Birth defects and excruciating diseases happen. To refuse to act to minimize suffering (indeed, to prevent it) is at best selfish and at worst abusive. To pretend that there is always a perfect answer to a problem in this imperfect world is to effectively close your eyes and live in your own imagination.

3. Classism

Not every family can afford the medical care of a special needs child. Not every family can afford the time spent caring for a special needs child, especially if they already have multiple children. To demand that families that know they lack these resources nonetheless give up everything to bring a child into a world where it will be neglected, inadequately treated by doctors, and in all likelihood end up in foster care or, as an adult, homeless, is cruelly insane. To focus on mere “life” to the exclusion of the quality thereof is not just stupid, it’s evil. It is deliberately inflicting suffering on others to soothe your own conscience.

And in case you’re wondering, the cost of a lifetime of care for a Down syndrome child has been recently estimated at 2.9 million dollars.

(Though, given that the estimate was made in the context of a lawsuit, it’s probably a little on the high side.)

4. Minimizing the Needs of Others

Parents and caregivers are people, too. They do not forfeit their own needs when they have children; indeed, doing so is actually harmful to children. Recall the many times I’ve said that having a stay-at-home mother made me feel hopeless and guilty about becoming a woman. I was put in the impossible position of either following in her footsteps, thereby ensuring that every female in our line would do nothing but sacrifice for her children and never get to have her own dreams, or not following in her footsteps and feeling guilty that I was (a) rejecting her by rejecting her lifestyle and (b) doing my own potential children some kind of injustice, even though I didn’t want my children facing the quandary I was! I wished my mother had more of a life outside of raising me, because then I would be freer to have a life, too.

If parents choose to welcome a special needs child into their family, they must consider how it will affect not only that child, but also themselves and their other children. They must make room for breaks and self-care to preserve their own health, mental and physical. In my own church, there was a woman with two children who got pregnant and found out her child had a fatal defect. She decided against having an abortion, believing that God would honor her and heal her child (or at least provide for it). The child lived 13 years in unspeakable pain, without cognition, undergoing surgery after surgery until she died – and by this time the family had exhausted its resources, the other two children had been practically abandoned. The mother had worked herself to the bone, endured a failed promise from God, and had to mourn the child all over again at the end of it all. That child was not a “blessing.” It was not a “rewarding” experience – though the mother might tell you so out of sheer love and the need to justify her situation. The child’s birth destroyed her family, and she was never even aware enough of her own existence to realize she was loved. How is that the hand of God?

5. Logical Inconsistency

First, we get the argument that raising a special needs child is a blessing:

[Says Rudd:] “If we look at the statistics or surveys that come from families that have raised a Downs individual, 97 percent said it was rewarding.”

That is abhorrent abuse of statistics. First, your entire sample (people who have chosen not to abort) is already biased toward the belief that what they’re doing is rewarding. Where are the surveys for women who chose to abort Downs fetuses? You’re comparing this 97 percent to an empty page. They might say that their abortion was a blessing, but you can’t print that, can you? Not on a Christian blog.

Second, the parenting discourse in Western culture is so punitive that parents of “typical” children aren’t even free to express that they dislike the drudgery of parenting without being accused of being sociopaths and hating their kids. That’s why such statements as “I hate being a mom” show up anonymously on Secret Confessions and have been called the Greatest American Taboo. How much more pressure is there on parents of special needs kids never to admit that they wish they weren’t?

Then, we get this:

Who are we to say that cystic fibrosis is such an overwhelmingly terrible disease that they shouldn’t be allowed to live?” Rudd said. “Do we say that about a one-year-old who is diagnosed? What’s different about a younger child?”

Little is different about a younger child. Everything is different about a fetus. A fetus does not have cognition. A fetus lives inside a woman’s body. A fetus has never drawn a breath. A fetus has not lived a life to miss. Those are significant differences.

Also, when did we go from talking about the relative independence of some Downs individuals to the horrible suffering inflicted by cystic fibrosis? Read this description and see if you think it’s an apt comparison: 

Cystic fibrosis is a disease passed down through families that causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in the lungs, digestive tract, and other areas of the body. It is one of the most common chronic lung diseases in children and young adults. It is a life-threatening disorder. Lung disease eventually worsens to the point where the person is disabled. Today, the average life span for people with CF who live to adulthood is approximately 37 years, a dramatic increase over the last three decades. Death is usually caused by lung complications.

Would you utter a sentence like this?: I hate the thought that there will be fewer people with cystic fibrosis in the world as a result of advances in prenatal testing. Would you tell parents how “rewarding” it is to raise a child with cystic fibrosis? Who are we to say that the disease is overwhelmingly terrible? Rudd asks. Well, here’s who we are: Caring parents. Compassionate, educated doctors. People who don’t want to inflict unnecessary suffering by bringing a not-yet-conscious fetus into the world to experience a waking nightmare and die, choking or suffocating, at half the normal life expectancy. That’s who.

There’s also the little problem that the article jumps back and forth between arguing about the intrinsic worth of life and the rewards of being a caregiver. These two competing perspectives make the argument hard to follow.

6 + 7. Erasing Motherhood

It’s a common trope of the pro-life movement that “a moment before birth” a fetus is a baby, and therefore abortion is the same as infanticide. This is not only scientifically inaccurate, it’s misogynistic. It erases the woman, her wellbeing, and her labor from the entire equation. Childbirth is momentous. It matters. It is not just a legal flagpole where personhood is arbitrarily assigned. It is the moment at which a child begins to occupy the world as an independent being.

It is also a moment made possible by the bodily work (pain, sweat, blood and tears) of a woman. If we grew children in plastic incubators with green fluid and Classical music playing gently in the background, then the “moment before birth” comparison might be apt. But it isn’t, because children live in their own bodies, and fetuses live in their mothers’. While that fetus is in its mother’s body, she does have sovereignty over the decision whether or not to bring the child into the world. That is her sacred right as a mother. It is her sacred right as a woman not to have her body violated against her will – be it by another adult, a child or a fetus. Alone, a fetus cannot be brought into the world to become a baby. Therefore, you can’t talk about a fetus as though it exists without regard for the woman upon whom its existence depends. To alienate the pregnant woman from a discussion about pregnancy is like having a conversation about the weather on an asteroid.

Zylstra concludes her article:

It’s not that the test is bad. To be able to map a child’s DNA while they’re still in the womb is fascinating. But so is the fact that many mothers believe that it would be worse to live in an imperfect body than not to live at all.

There’s a huge problem here. Cystic fibrosis is a serious disease. Downs syndrome can be serious. Genetic diseases can leave children’s independence stalled, their mobility hampered, their bodies aching, their minds wracked with torturous bouts of depression and anger, their futures uncertain and their families stressed to the breaking point. This isn’t about perfect and imperfect bodies. This is not the difference between passing on genes correlated with overweight and comparing your potential child to fitness models. The perfect/imperfect body dichotomy is a red herring. No body is perfect. It’s disingenuous and manipulative to assert that having a serious genetic disorder is equivalent to having a few pimples and a crooked nose.

If I somehow (metaphysics be damned!) had a choice to be born in a body that would slowly disintegrate on me, like that of Stephen Hawking, or not to be born at all, I’d pick the latter. This does not mean that I think Stephen Hawking shouldn’t be alive. He is a great scientist. He has done marvelous things with his life. But that does not make the pain and horror of his situation any less. If I could prevent my own child from being born into a life like that, I would. I consider it my moral imperative. And if Stephen Hawking and I were hanging out in the metaphysical waiting room before descending to earth, and he told me he didn’t want to be born into all that suffering, it would be unfathomably selfish of me to demand that he endure what he has endured just so that I (and other healthful people) could benefit from his mind.

My Points:

If you made it this far, congratulations. Here’s the rundown:

  1. Respect disabled people for their personhood, but don’t promote the continued existence of disabilities. That doesn’t do anyone any favors.
  2. Don’t treat disabled children as special projects to improve their parents’ character.
  3. Don’t act like everybody can afford to live by your conscience.
  4. Don’t prioritize the wellbeing of a fetus over the entire family.
  5. Don’t force special needs children into families that don’t want them, and will abuse, neglect or abandon them. They have it hard enough in families that want them and have the resources to care for them.
  6. Don’t conflate serious disorders with minor imperfections to guilt parents into a choice to raise a child they don’t want to have.
  7. Don’t abuse statistics to lie about the satisfaction rate of parents with special needs children.
  8. Don’t minimize the labor of mothers or pretend that you can talk about fetuses without women.
It is possible to choose abortion based on a positive screening for genetic disorders because you are morally opposed to inflicting suffering on others. It is possible that women who abort fetuses with Down syndrome or more series disorders do it not because they hate Downs people or like genocide or are Selfish Career Bitches(TM), but because they honestly believe it’s what’s best for their families. The anti-abortion crowd is not the only one with a flagpole stuck in the moral high ground.
 
Now, finally, a thought experiment.


Why is it a “blessing” and a “rewarding” experience to raise a child with Down syndrome, but not one with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome? If there’s something inherently valuable about disabilities themselves that improves the lives of people who have them and whose loved ones have them, why does the origin of the disability make such a difference? Why is taking every precaution to avoid FAS, to the point of making pregnant women neurotic, a worthwhile societal goal? Why does no one hate to imagine a world in which there are no children with FAS?

I suspect the answer has something to do with control. Because if you can control an outcome (or at least think you can), people will be justified in blaming you for an adverse outcome. But if you can’t prevent suffering (or think you can’t), your reputation remains untarnished. If you see suffering in your future and evade it, those who are suffering will attack you for your selfishness and arrogance. (“How dare you have it so easy?”) But is that feeling of moral superiority actually moral superiority? I don’t think so. It sounds more like a cry of pain at the unfairness of the world – which is something we should be trying to fix, not perpetuate.

Sierra is a PhD student living in the Midwest. She was raised in a “Message of the Hour” congregation that followed the ministry of William Branham. She left the Message in 2006 and is the author of the blog The Phoenix and the Olive Branch.

Analysis Economic Justice

New Pennsylvania Bill Is Just One Step Toward Helping Survivors of Economic Abuse

Annamarya Scaccia

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.”

In fact, members of the public who have not experienced domestic abuse may overlook financial abuse or minimize it. A 2009 national poll from the Allstate Foundation—the philanthropic arm of the Illinois-based insurance company—revealed that nearly 70 percent of Americans do not associate financial abuse with domestic violence, even though it’s an all-too-common tactic among abusers: Economic violence happens in 98 percent of abusive relationships, according to the NNEDV.

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.”

Public Policy as a Means of Economic Justice

Still, advocates say that public policy, particularly disparate workplace conditions, plays an enormous role in furthering financial abuse. The populations who are more likely to be victims of domestic violence—women, especially trans women and those of color—are also the groups more likely to be underemployed or unemployed. A 2015 LGBT Health & Human Services Network survey, for example, found that 28 percent of working-age transgender women were unemployed and out of school.

“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.

Furthermore, only a handful of state laws protect workers from discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy or familial status (North Carolina, on the other hand, recently passed a draconian state law that permits wide-sweeping bias in public and the workplace). There is no specific federal law that protects LGBTQ workers, but the U.S. Employment Opportunity Commission has clarified that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 does prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.

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.

But these programs are under constant attack by conservative lawmakers. In March, the House Republicans approved a 2017 budget plan that would all but gut SNAP by more than $150 million over the next ten years. (Steep cuts already imposed on the food assistance program have led to as many as one million unemployed adults losing their benefits over the course of this year.) The House GOP budget would also strip nearly $500 billion from other social safety net programs including TANF, child-care assistance, and the earned income tax credit.

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.”

Commentary Economic Justice

The Gender Wage Gap Is Not Women’s Fault, and Here’s the Report That Proves It

Kathleen Geier

The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work.

A new report confirms what millions of women already know: that women’s choices are not to blame for the gender wage gap. Instead, researchers at the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), the progressive think tank that issued the report, say that women’s unequal pay is driven by “discrimination, social norms, and other factors beyond women’s control.”

This finding—that the gender pay gap is caused by structural factors rather than women’s occupational choices—is surprisingly controversial. Indeed, in my years as a journalist covering women’s economic issues, the subject that has been most frustrating for me to write about has been the gender gap. (Full disclosure: I’ve worked as a consultant for EPI, though not on this particular report.) No other economic topic I’ve covered has been more widely misunderstood, or has been so outrageously distorted by misrepresentations, half-truths, and lies.

That’s because, for decades, conservatives have energetically promoted the myth that the gender pay gap does not exist. They’ve done such a bang-up job of it that denying the reality of the gap, like denying the reality of global warming, has become an article of faith on the right. Conservative think tanks like the Independent Women’s Forum and the American Enterprise Institute and right-wing writers at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, Breitbart, and the Daily Caller have denounced the gender pay gap as “a lie,” “not the real story,” “a fairy tale,” “a statistical delusion,” and “the myth that won’t die.” Sadly, it is not only right-wing propagandists who are gender wage gap denialists. Far more moderate types like Slate’s Hanna Rosin and the Atlantic’s Derek Thompson have also claimed that the gender wage gap statistic is misleading and exaggerates disparities in earnings.

According to the most recent figures available from the Census Bureau, for every dollar a man makes, a woman makes only 79 cents, a statistic that has barely budged in a decade. And that’s just the gap for women overall; for most women of color, it’s considerably larger. Black women earn only 61 percent of what non-Hispanic white men make, and Latinas earn only 55 percent as much. In a recent survey, U.S. women identified the pay gap as their biggest workplace concern. Yet gender wage gap denialists of a variety of political stripes contend that gender gap statistic—which measures the difference in median annual earnings between men and women who work full-time, year-round—is inaccurate because it does not compare the pay of men and women doing the same work. They argue that when researchers control for traits like experience, type of work, education, and the like, the gender gap evaporates like breath on a window. In short, the denialists frame the gender pay gap as the product not of sexist discrimination, but of women’s freely made choices.

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The EPI study’s co-author, economist Elise Gould, said in an interview with Rewire that she and her colleagues realized the need for the new report when an earlier paper generated controversy on social media. That study had uncovered an “unadjusted”—meaning that it did not control for differences in workplace and personal characteristics—$4 an hour gender wage gap among recent college graduates. Gould said she found this pay disparity “astounding”: “You’re looking at two groups of people, men and women, with virtually the same amount of experience, and yet their wages are so different.” But critics on Twitter, she said, claimed that the wage gap simply reflected the fact that women were choosing lower-paid jobs. “So we wanted to take out this one idea of occupational choice and look at that,” Gould said.

Gould and her co-author Jessica Schieder highlight two important findings in their EPI report. One is that, even within occupations, and even after controlling for observable factors such as education and work experience, the gender wage gap remains stubbornly persistent. As Gould told me, “If you take a man and a woman sitting side by side in a cubicle, doing the same exact job with the same amount of experience and the same amount of education, on average, the man is still going to be paid more than the woman.”

The EPI report cites the work of Harvard economist Claudia Goldin, who looked at the relative weight in the overall wage gap of gender-based pay differences within occupations versus those between occupations. She found that while gender pay disparities between different occupations explain 32 percent of the gap, pay differences within the same occupation account for far more—68 percent, or more than twice as much. In other words, even if we saw equal numbers of men and women in every profession, two-thirds of the gender wage gap would still remain.

And yes, female-dominated professions pay less, but the reasons why are difficult to untangle. It’s a chicken-and-egg phenomenon, the EPI report explains, raising the question: Are women disproportionately nudged into low-status, low-wage occupations, or do these occupations pay low wages simply because it is women who are doing the work?

Historically, “women’s work” has always paid poorly. As scholars such as Paula England have shown, occupations that involve care work, for example, are associated with a wage penalty, even after controlling for other factors. But it’s not only care work that is systematically devalued. So, too, is work in other fields where women workers are a majority—even professions that were not initially dominated by women. The EPI study notes that when more women became park rangers, for example, overall pay in that occupation declined. Conversely, as computer programming became increasingly male-dominated, wages in that sector began to soar.

The second major point that Gould and Schieder emphasize is that a woman’s occupational choice does not occur in a vacuum. It is powerfully shaped by forces like discrimination and social norms. “By the time a woman earns her first dollar, her occupational choice is the culmination of years of education, guidance by mentors, parental expectations, hiring practices, and widespread norms and expectations about work/family balance,” Gould told Rewire. One study cited by Gould and Schieder found that in states where traditional attitudes about gender are more prevalent, girls tend to score higher in reading and lower in math, relative to boys. It’s one of many findings demonstrating that cultural attitudes wield a potent influence on women’s achievement. (Unfortunately, the EPI study does not address racism, xenophobia, or other types of bias that, like sexism, shape individuals’ work choices.)

Parental expectations also play a key role in shaping women’s occupational choices. Research reflected in the EPI study shows that parents are more likely to expect their sons to enter male-dominated science, technology, engineering, and math (often called STEM) fields, as opposed to their daughters. This expectation holds even when their daughters score just as well in math.

Another factor is the culture in male-dominated industries, which can be a huge turn-off to women, especially women of color. In one study of women working in science and technology, Latinas and Black women reported that they were often mistaken for janitors—something that none of the white women in the study had experienced. Another found that 52 percent of highly qualified women working in science and technology ended up leaving those fields, driven out by “hostile work environments and extreme job pressures.”

Among those pressures are excessively long hours, which make it difficult to balance careers with unpaid care work, for which women are disproportionately responsible. Goldin’s research, Gould said, shows that “in jobs that have more temporal flexibility instead of inflexibility and long hours, you do see a smaller gender wage gap.” Women pharmacists, for example, enjoy relatively high pay and a narrow wage gap, which Goldin has linked to flexible work schedules and a professional culture that enables work/life balance. By contrast, the gender pay gap is widest in highest-paying fields such as finance, which disproportionately reward those able to work brutally long hours and be on call 24/7.

Fortunately, remedies for the gender wage gap are at hand. Gould said that strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws, greater wage transparency (which can be achieved through unions and collective bargaining), and more flexible workplace policies would all help to alleviate gender-based pay inequities. Additional solutions include raising the minimum wage, which would significantly boost the pay of the millions of women disproportionately concentrated in the low-wage sector, and enacting paid family leave, a policy that would be a boon for women struggling to combine work and family. All of these issues are looming increasingly large in our national politics.

But in order to advance these policies, it’s vital to debunk the right’s shameless, decades-long disinformation campaign about the gender gap. The fact is, in every occupation and at every level, women earn less than men doing exactly the same work. The right alleges that the official gender pay gap figure exaggerates the role of discrimination. But even statistics that adjust for occupation and other factors can, in the words of the EPI study, “radically understate the potential for gender discrimination to suppress women’s earnings.”

Contrary to conservatives’ claims, women did not choose to be paid consistently less than men for work that is every bit as valuable to society. But with the right set of policies, we can reverse the tide and bring about some measure of economic justice to the hard-working women of the United States.