Don’t Buy the Deceptive Marketing of the ‘Violence Against Women Act’

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President Joe Biden turns from the podium after speaking to a joint session of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., April 28, 2021. (Andrew Harnik/Pool via Reuters)

The bill Biden backed last night hides bad policies on gender and gun control behind an unobjectionable name.

‘Pass it and save lives,” President Biden said last night in his address to Congress regarding congressional reauthorization of the “Violence Against Women Act” (VAWA). The U.S. House already did so last month, and given the bill’s title, you’d think it would be an easy lift for the Senate. After all, doesn’t VAWA have the best interests of American women at heart?

And yet the House vote was split largely along party lines. As one House member noted, a surfeit of add-on provisions had made the bill unnecessarily partisan.

It wasn’t the first time. VAWA lapsed in late 2018 after gun-control and gender-identity provisions inserted in the reauthorization bill stalled congressional action. This year’s version strays even further from center.

Buried within the bill’s 259 pages are not-so-minor provisions that poison the its intent and render VAWA just another political cudgel used to advance progressive interests against the very women it claims to protect.

Take, for example, the not-insignificant inclusions of “transgender” and “gender non-conforming” individuals alongside biological women. Trying to keep pace with President Biden’s January 20 executive order on sexual orientation and gender identity, VAWA champions the cause of the few over the protection of the many. The bill would require vulnerable women in shelters fleeing abuse to be housed alongside biological men in close quarters. The bill makes no concession for opportunistic male predators seeking to target abused women. All that’s required is self-identification as a woman.

Similarly, among its provisions to improve conditions for women in federal custody, VAWA further instructs that considerations concerning the location/re-location of transgender prisoners should be done on a case-by-case basis by prioritizing the prisoner’s (not the other inmates’) health and safety, with “serious considerations” given to the prisoner’s own views.

It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict the outcome of policies like these. We already know. Washington State allows self-identifying transgender inmates to be housed in the prison of their choosing. A whistleblower at the Washington Corrections Center for Women in Pierce County recently reported that a male inmate who self-identified as a female transferred from a male facility and raped a female inmate on the day of his arrival. The transferred inmate was a convicted multiple sex offender. Two other trans-identifying biological males have also just been transferred to that same women’s facility — both with histories of sexual assault.

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With provisions such as these, VAWA makes a mockery of long-standing protections for biological women.

Take also VAWA’s extensive gun-control provisions. VAWA would expand the list of disqualifying offenses that would prohibit convicted offenders from buying or possessing a firearm. While all felonies and misdemeanor domestic-violence offenses are already included, VAWA would add misdemeanor stalking, even though some stalking offenses can arise without any threatening or personal contact whatsoever.

VAWA also closes the so-called “boyfriend loophole.” The bill would extend to current and former dating partners the existing federal gun-ownership and gun-possession prohibitions that originally applied only to current and former spouses. By broadening the range of both prohibited offenses and prohibited offenders that preclude gun ownership, the House seems problematically eager to divest individuals of a constitutional right without deliberate and careful consideration, and perhaps, introduction of a separate bill.

The version of VAWA currently being debated also fails to rectify several major constitutional issues with VAWA’s jurisdictional provisions. As my Heritage Foundation colleague Paul Larkin has noted, it violates both Articles II and III of the Constitution by permitting the courts of Indian tribal nations (considered sovereign nations, not states) to exercise concurrent jurisdiction over non-Indians charged with certain criminal offenses on tribal lands. This is jurisdiction they do not have, and the provision would likely be struck down as unconstitutional. So if the government aims to prevent domestic violence on Indian reservations, VAWA certainly will not accomplish it.

Whatever the bill’s laudable aims, they are lost in its pandering to special interests. Americans need a better bill: one all women can support; one that doesn’t use the political camouflage of American consensus on preventing domestic violence and turn it into a stealth vehicle for progressive overreach.

The female victims of abuse deserve better. Those who truly want to address the problem must do better.

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