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Racially-Charged Anti-Abortion Bill Angers Civil Rights Community

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TRENT FRANKS
House Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on the Constitution Chairman Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) holds a hearing about HR 3, the "No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion Act." | Getty Images

Minority and women's civil rights groups, including the NAACP, criticized GOP lawmakers on Tuesday for using Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony -- two of the most prominent civil rights leaders in American history -- as the public faces of a new anti-abortion bill.

The Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2011, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), criminalizes abortions performed on the basis of sex or race and could send doctors to prison for failing to determine whether the sex or race of the fetus played into a woman's decision to abort. Franks, chairman of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, cited statistics at a hearing for the bill on Tuesday that show the disproportionately high rate of abortions among African American women and framed the bill as a way to ensure that minority and female babies have the same right to life as white male babies.

"This is the civil rights struggle that will define our generation," Franks said in his opening statement.

Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), the longest-serving African American member of the House, responded to Franks' proclamation by asking why Frederick Douglass' and Susan B. Anthony's names are on the bill.

"I've studied Frederick Douglass more than you," Conyers told Franks. "And I've never heard or read about him saying anything about prenatal nondiscrimination."

The anti-abortion community has long tried to tie race into the abortion debate by comparing abortion to "black genocide," but civil rights groups are often skeptical of their intent. The NAACP, the National Council of Jewish Women and 45 other U.S. civil rights groups echoed Conyers' skepticism in a letter to the subcommittee on Tuesday. The reason African American women have a higher abortion rate than white women, they wrote in the letter, is that their rate of unintended pregnancy is 67 percent, compared to 40 percent for white women. The answer is not to penalize doctors who serve communities of color or to restrict women's choice, but to address the root of the problem by empowering minority women to make informed personal health decisions and have fewer unintended pregnancies.

"We are very concerned to see the fight against discrimination being misappropriated to push a bill that does nothing to combat sex and race discrimination, but instead imposes additional barriers on women in the United States," the groups wrote. "If passed, this bill would exacerbate health disparities."

Democrats at the hearing pointed to a 2011 World Health Organization report which concluded that attempts to ban sex-selective abortions "are likely to result in a greater demand for clandestine procedures which fall outside regulations, protocols and monitoring." Moreover, opponents of the bill say there is very little evidence to back up the claim that prenatal discrimination, which has been most often documented in China and India, is a real problem in the U.S.

"As far as we know, there is no research that shows that sex and race selective abortion occurs in the U.S.," Rebecca Wind, a spokeswoman for the reproductive health research organization the Guttmacher Institute, told HuffPost Monday.

Franks and his Republican colleagues on the subcommittee charged that the Democrats were complaining about the name of the bill to distract from the real problem of babies being aborted on the basis of sex and race. Naming the bill after Douglass and Anthony is appropriate, GOP lawmakers argued, because the bill protects women and minorities.

"It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union," Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio) said at the hearing Tuesday, quoting a famous Susan B. Anthony speech.

He also cited an April 2011 article about Indian American communities

Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) cited a 2006 Zogby/USA Today poll showing that 86 percent of Americans agree that abortions based on sex and race are wrong. He also described an April 2011 article about Indian American communities (apparently under the false impression that it was about Native Americans), in which women report having been beaten and abused for carrying female babies.

But critics of the bill say it would do nothing to curb the pressures on those women to have female children. Instead, they argue it would encourage doctors to quiz women, particularly minority women, on the race of their partner and their motivations; and would discourage doctors from providing ultrasounds to determine the gender of the baby. It could even cause some physicians to avoid serving minority communities altogether, abortion advocates charge.

"If proponents of this bill truly wanted to help minority women, they would support Title X family planning clinics like Planned Parenthood, comprehensive sex education and the myriad preventative health benefits, such as free birth control, in health care reform," Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said. "But they don't, which should tell us something about their true motivations behind this bill."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story failed to note that the article Rep. King described is actually about Indian Americans, not Native Americans.

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