Dozens of people of color sent a letter to Congress Thursday expressing outrage over the introduction of the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) of 2016 (HR 4924), which they say threatens the future of abortion care and codifies dangerous racist and sexist stereotypes against Asian American and Pacific Islanders, Black people, and Latinas.
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.
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.
Race- and sex-selective abortion is not a widespread occurrence in the United States, but anti-choice groups and lawmakers have cited isolated studies claiming to document the practice occurring in immigrant communities as a way to push anti-abortion legislation in the past.
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.