Yet Another Effort to Racialize the Attack on Women’s Health

The Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2012 claims to protect Asian children. But it is a slight variation of a familiar formula: Race-bait, cry crocodile tears about sexism--then police the wombs of women of color.

By Akiba Solomon May 31, 2012

UPDATE 2:53pm EST: PRENDA (H.B. 3541) failed in a 246-168 vote. Under House suspension rules, the bill would have required a 2/3 majority to pass. Twenty Democrats were among those in favor, The Hill reports.


I have to thank my friends Terrell and Dhalimu–two sexy beasts of Harlem style and shade–for giving me a perfect way to describe the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA)* up for a House vote today:

PRENDA is a wear-out. 

When Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) introduced this wear-out of a bill last November he was calling it the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act. By naming it after two of the most powerful and profound equal rights activists in modern history, Franks created a false equivalency between the liberation of enslaved Africans, voting rights for women, and the contemporary right-wing fetishization of zygotes. 

This tactic is no surprise since Rep. Franks is, himself, a wear-out. Note that in 2010, he accused health reform proponents of "robbing the American citizens of power and putting it in the hands of left-wing liberal bureaucrats and elitists who think they know more about running people’s lives than the people themselves do." (Because nothing says "freedom" like exorbitant health insurance premiums, uninsured masses and very sick people being dropped from their plans.) Franks opposed the repeal of "Don’t Ask Don’t Tell," claiming that "those who give it all for us" should be able to "deal with this in their own way." He’s also poo-pooed placing women in military combat on grounds that they might cripple their "already small units" by becoming pregnant and "suddenly [disappearing] for a year at a time." 

As I recount Rep. Franks’s ridiculousness, I feel myself becoming a wear-out. But to understand the intent of PRENDA, I think we have to understand its author. 

If, by chance, this highly partisan bill becomes federal law, it will:

  • Punish doctors who perform an abortion based on the sex of the fetus. (Apparently the race of the fetus is no longer at issue.)
  • Punish those who transport a woman across state lines for a sex-selective abortion with five years in prison and/or fines. 
  • Force physicians, physician’s assistants, nurses, counselors and other medical and mental health professionals to report a patient to the police if they suspect that she wants an abortion because of the sex of her fetus. The penalty for practicing doctor-patient confidentiality would be a year in prison and/or a fine.
  • Allow women who have opted for an abortion in the past, and the fathers and maternal grandparents of fetuses to sue a doctor for punitive (read, financial) damages if they claim that sex was the deciding factor in a woman ending a pregnancy.

Because the most recent version of PRENDA centers on the sketchy premise that a disproportionate number of Asian-American women are aborting their female fetuses to maintain the "son-preference" of their ancestral homes, reproductive justice advocates are crying foul. 

"Asian-American women nationwide are being unfairly targeted by anti-choice policy makers who are making assumptions about why women seek abortions," says Eveline Shen, executive director of Oakland-based Forward Together. "This kind of racial profiling jeopardizes a woman’s constitutional right to choose the reproductive health care that is best for her and her family."

In an online statement, Sakhi for South Asian Women calls PRENDA a distraction:

"This bill, along with the House-passed version of VAWA, which contains terrible anti-immigrant language, only serve to marginalize and further victimize women, and distract us what we should all be working on–access to services and supports that increase women’s self-sufficiency, safety and ability to create and sustain strong and healthy families and communities."

While I agree that PRENDA is an energy-sapper, I am encouraged by some of the linkages it’s producing. For instance, it’s refreshing to see the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and Black Women’s Health Imperative speak in unison on a potentially divisive issue. 

When it comes down to it, exhausting PRENDA-ish laws aren’t going anywhere. And the people who craft them will continue to distort then pimp out the very race and gender and politics they eschew when it comes time to deal with the inequities that beings outside of the womb are facing. 

"The right is really good with using identity politics to unravel gians by the groups that they claim to be supporting," says Salamishah Tillet, a University of Pennsylvania professor, co-founder of the Chicago anti-rape organization A Long Walk Home and a blogger for The Nation. "Often [their efforts] don’t take away big rights; they whittle away at little rights and that has an [overall] effect."

Bonus: For a detailed look at how to deal with the real, structural issues surrounding son-preference, read "Son Preference and Sex Selection in America: Why It Persists and How We Can Change It."

*Post has been updated since publication.