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Commentary Law and Policy

Sarah Pitlyk’s Judicial Nomination Is a Threat to Women of Color (Updated)

Kimya Forouzan & Jacqueline Tosto

A vote confirming Sarah Pitlyk is a vote against women of color’s agency, health, and rights.

UPDATE, December 4, 2019, 4:00 p.m.: In a mostly party-line vote on Wednesday, the U.S. Senate confirmed Sarah Pitlyk as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri.

The Trump administration has ushered in the confirmation of more than 150 judges, many of whom have demonstrated their hostility to communities of color. One of the latest candidates, Sarah Pitlyk, was recently nominated to serve as a judge on the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri. The U.S. Senate will likely vote on confirmation of her nomination this week. Pitlyk’s legal work has relied on vehemently racist stereotypes. If confirmed, she would doubtlessly continue eviscerating the rights and agency of women of color.

Pitlyk’s advocacy as a lawyer has focused on policies that unequally harm women of color, such as her work supporting the Title X final rule, which disproportionately limits access to reproductive health care for women of color. She also co-authored an amicus brief in opposition to insurance coverage of birth control for employees, and has publicly opposed the Affordable Care Act, which has significantly expanded health-care access for communities of color.

One of the most concerning aspects of Pitlyk’s work is her misguided advocacy for bans on so-called race- and sex-selective abortion. These bans prohibit abortion providers from performing abortions if the provider knows or suspects that a pregnant person’s reason for the abortion is the race or sex of the fetus. But those suspicions are often rooted in harmful racist stereotypes—as are Pitlyk’s arguments.

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Sex-selective abortion bans have targeted Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women in particular. An amicus brief in Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky last year that Pitlyk co-authored makes sweeping generalizations, referring to AAPI communities as “a population…characterized by ‘son-preference’” and “a cultural group [that] has a single-gender preference.” But contrary to her arguments, a 2014 University of Chicago study found that Asian Americans actually give birth to more girls than white women do.

In arguing for sex-selective abortion bans, Pitlyk co-authored a brief that relied on racist and xenophobic stereotypes that sex-selective abortions are widespread among AAPI women due to unfounded “cultural” values of son-preference. This stereotype is not only false and ugly—it subjects AAPI communities to racial profiling and even being denied care. AAPI women already face numerous obstacles in accessing reproductive health care, such as financial costs, lack of language access, and bars on insurance coverage. These bans are yet another barrier.

Similar to her arguments for sex-selective abortion bans, Pitlyk characteristically employs in the same amicus brief racist narratives about women of color to advocate for race-selective abortion bans. Relying on fear rhetoric, her brief argues that states should prohibit abortions based on the race of a fetus because abortion clinics are purposefully targeting women of color. She contends that Planned Parenthood deliberately situates its clinics in areas with communities of color purportedly in order to entice people of color to have abortions.

But the truth is, Planned Parenthood clinics provide a wealth of services, including birth control, well-woman exams, and cancer screening and prevention services, and are located in areas where the need for their services is greatest. Due to historic and ongoing systemic racism and inequities, people of color experience disproportionately higher rates of poverty and a greater need for quality and affordable health-care services. It is preposterous to argue that the proximity of Planned Parenthood clinics persuades women of color to seek abortions. Pitlyk also argues that women of color are having abortions at a higher rate than white women due to these tactics, but her arguments dismiss the variety of societal barriers that women of color face that lead them to choose to have an abortion and their higher rates of unintended pregnancies due to health disparities.

In arguing that abortion care is racially biased, Pitlyk’s brief implicitly argues that women of color cannot be trusted with reproductive decisions about their own bodies, which is inherently racist. Women should have full autonomy over their bodies regardless of race, and states should not interfere with their reproductive decisions.

What’s most egregious is not just her use of harmful stereotypes against communities of color—it’s also her reliance on them for legal reasoning, demonstrating a dangerous and clear inability to rule with competence and impartiality.

Given Pitlyk’s use of racist stereotypes and narratives, it is hardly surprising that she co-authored another amicus brief in favor of ending affirmative action in Michigan. Similar to her arguments against access to reproductive health, she ignores structural racial disparities in providing opportunities that would enable communities of color to thrive.

At a time when the rights and dignity of immigrant communities and communities of color face daily assaults, we need judges who will protect the rights that we have fought for. And with reproductive health-care access already under attack in the South, we need judges who will uphold reproductive rights, particularly for people of color who are disproportionately affected by these attacks. Pitlyk’s confirmation would not only legitimize the belief that women of color cannot make life decisions for themselves and need the government to control their bodies, but it would also signal yet again people of color cannot count on the legal system to protect fundamental rights. We cannot let that happen.

A vote confirming Sarah Pitlyk is a vote against women of color’s agency, health, and rights.

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