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Roe at 40 Podcast Series: Interview with Miriam Yeung

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In the fifth installment of our podcast series examining the state of the reproductive health, rights, and justice movement in the United States on the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, we speak with Miriam Yeung, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum and a next-generation leader in the fight for reproductive justice. Ms. Yeung discusses how she came to the movement, why Roe is important for Asian and Pacific Islander women, and how reproductive rights relates to other progressive movements such as immigrant rights and LGBT rights.

Jessica Arons: Roe v. Wade—how does it relate to the right to build and maintain a family of one’s choosing?

I am Jessica Arons, the Director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress. We are joined today by Miriam Yeung, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, or NAPAWF. NAPAWF is the country’s only national, multi-issue progressive organization dedicated to social justice and human rights for Asian and Pacific Islander women and girls in the United States. Prior to NAPAWF, Miriam held many positions during her 10-year career at the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community Center in New York City. She is here to discuss with us the intersections and implications of Roe on her work across social justice movements. Welcome.

Miriam Yeung: Thanks for having me.

JA: We are happy to have you here. So you were born after the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, and you grew up in the post-Roe era. What brought you to this work, and why is it important to you?

MY: I was born a little bit after the Supreme Court ruling. I guess you and I are of the same age. Personally, what brings me to this work is I came out as a lesbian—as a queer woman—in 1991. I was in high school. And though that’s just one experience of coming out, it was a really formative one about sexual liberation and being able to be honest about your life—about being able to choose who you love and what to do with your body. And that felt at that time also intimately tied to whether or not that was approved of or whether or not that was supported.

I really cut my activist teeth in the early ‘90s as well as a queer sexual health activist really formatively through my experiences working in the HIV movement. And this was before Protease Inhibitors, right? And this was really at the height of ACT UP [AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power]. And there was a sense of urgency in the work that we were doing, where all of a sudden all the freedom and excitement and authenticity that we knew could come from our sexual liberation was also met by this devastating illness and disease that we saw in our community—and then the interplay of whether or not society and government helped people in this.

All of that I think is part and parcel to the larger reproductive rights conversation that we have been having. And certainly Roe v. Wade is a critical part of that. So for me, I was really brought to this work knowing that Roe v. Wade was a critical first step in what I see as a broader sexual liberation agenda that really is at the cornerstone of what gender liberation and gender justice would look like.

JA: Well thank you, great. As we celebrate Asian Pacific Heritage month, can you tell us about how Roe has been important for the rights of Asian and Pacific Islander, or API, women in particular?

MY: So a little bit about NAPAWF. As you mentioned, NAPAWF is the nation’s only multi-issue progressive organization—policy/advocacy organization—for Asian Pacific Islander women and girls in the United States.

We were founded in 1996, and there was a critical meeting the year before this in 1995 at the U.N. conference on women in Beijing, where about 100 Asian American activists got all the way to Beijing and organized a meeting for themselves. And at this meeting they realized that though we had experts and all of these fierce social justice leaders working in different fields of work at the time, there was no organized voice and official way for Asian American women to participate at this U.N. meeting, even though they were Asian American women in this Asian country at this meeting about women. So NAPAWF was founded after that.

Asian Americans have been an important part of America and have been a growing part of America. Currently there are more than 17 million Asian Americans living in this country. We are a very highly diverse community of many ethnicities and speak many languages. So the Asian American community is one that can’t be easily encapsulated.

So specifically about how Roe has been important for the rights of API women and girls: You know in our community, like many other women of color communities, there are unfortunate stories about violations of API women’s reproductive justice. There are well-documented stories of sterilization in our communities in the Pacific Islands—for example, Japanese women during internment over and over—that others have been deciding for Asian and Asian American women their reproductive path and their reproductive freedom. So Roe is critically important in that it firmly states and gives the authority for reproductive decision making firmly in the hands, and the minds, and the hearts of the women. And I think that has absolutely been an important part of what Asian American and Pacific Islander women have needed and have asked for.

JA: NAPAWF has been deeply involved in fighting bills that ban abortions that purportedly are motivated by the sex or race of the fetus. Can you tell us a little bit about that ongoing fight?

MY: Where do you want me to begin? (laughs) Okay, so first let me describe: There have been a number of bills proposed both on the federal level and across the states that have been named some version of the “Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act” or, as it was originally proposed in the federal government, the “Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act.”

Essentially all of these bills operate the same way, which is that they would criminalize doctors or nurses for providing abortions that they suspect are motivated by the race or sex of the fetus. And they use very social-justice-oriented and human-rights-oriented language in the bill findings. Essentially, they say, they are being more gender equal and civil rights oriented by using this bill, using the argument that of course they are the vanguards of gender equality and civil rights.

Now, many of these bills include a race-based abortion piece, which we just have to debunk. It’s just a made-up concept, and it’s made up in particular to target Planned Parenthood. It’s made up in particular to target and twist some of the demographics we know about health inequalities and disproportionate unintended pregnancies in some communities of color. So race is made up, and there are many other women of color who have said it better than I, but it’s not like a woman of color wakes up one day and goes, “Oh my gosh, my fetus is a kid of color?” No Asian woman would be like, “Oh, I’m carrying an Asian fetus. Like, oh my gosh.” It’s never a surprise, right?  So it’s a ridiculous concept.

The sex-selective abortion piece is a little bit more difficult to unpack. It is obviously of huge concern to us in an international context and has gathered a lot of attention. We understand that sex-selective practices, which include preconception and postconception practices, are a result of son preference, which is really a result of gender inequality, right? So we really provide an analysis that goes back to some of the core roots.

These bills would have, of course, a terrible impact for all women because all of a sudden, any woman’s motive for seeking an abortion becomes suspicious and becomes something that you have to answer an additional question about at this moment where you should be establishing a relationship of trust and openness with your provider.

This particularly has an impact on Asian American women because essentially we believe that bills of this sort would dictate that Asian American women would be somewhat racially profiled in the doctor’s office. And we think that racial profiling has no place in American society, not the least of which is at your doctor’s office. These kinds of bills—PRENDAs [Prenatal Non-discrimination Acts] or Sex Selective Abortion Bans—all purport to use this logic about supporting Asian women really by taking away our rights, which is why we call them “wolves in sheep’s clothing.”

More to the point of this conversation is that this is a direct challenge that we have documented in the antiabortion movement, or lobby, spelling out over the last 30 years because these bills, if they become law, would be a direct challenge to Roe and the line in the sand that Roe has already put about viability and abortion.

JA: Thank you. That’s a very helpful overview of this very complex issue. I want to shift gears just a little bit. This is still quite related though, I think. NAPAWF has been deeply involved also in the campaign for immigration reform. Roe talks about not just the right to have an abortion but the right to decide whether and when to become a parent. And in that way, it is connected to the right to be a parent and to build a family of one’s choosing. So I’d like to hear from you a little bit about how immigration reform might affect that spectrum of rights.

MY: So fundamentally I think the reproductive and immigrant rights movements are both about self-determination and freedom. For women to be completely free, we have to be able to chart the course of our own lives and that means determining not just whether and when to create a family, but I also think where to create a family and where to be able to raise a family with dignity and security and opportunity.

Immigration laws are literally laws about controlling bodies. Which bodies can enter? It is about which bodies are considered legitimate, which bodies are considered American.

Asian American women actually have a particular slice of this history. We have the dubious distinction of being the first class of people singled out in an anti-immigrant law. This was the first immigration law ever written, the Page Law,* which prohibited Asian women from immigrating to this country. Many of these Asian women were seeking to reunite with their husbands in the United States, but they were miscategorized or slandered as prostitutes. And so the Page Law was the first anti-immigrant law prohibiting the entry of women—and Asian women at that. Of course, then we have this other history of the Chinese Exclusion Act soon after that and then the pre-1965 immigrant laws, which basically excluded people from immigrating from a number of specific countries, and this had a disproportionate impact on Asians in particular.

We are at a moment, I think, where our country can live up to our principles of family unity and our family values, if I want to take that term and mean it a different way. In fact, it’s really up in the air right now. Immigration policy reform gives us an amazing opportunity on one hand to fix some of the ways that the system is broken and tears families apart.

For example, there about 5 million children here who are U.S. citizens with one or more undocumented family member. There are about 5,000 kids in foster care right now because they’ve had a parent or two deported or detained. And routinely every day we see families being totally ripped apart and torn apart. That is not a reproductive justice value obviously. The immigration enforcement policies right now that we have are reproductive injustice in that way if you are tearing families apart. So immigration policy reform has an opportunity to fix some of those atrocities.

We also have 4.5 million family members waiting to be reunited with their loved ones here in the United States in the so-called family visa backlogs. So how we deal with these big policy questions, I think, absolutely falls into that spectrum of parenting, of family, of community, and really determining what are the core values that our country will stand for.

JA: Do you want to talk a little bit about the work that NAPAWF is doing to raise and address these issues in immigration reform?

MY: Yeah. NAPAWF is part of a number of key organizations and campaigns working at the intersection of women and immigration policy reform, one of which is called the “We Belong Together” campaign, which we co-anchor with the National Domestic Workers Alliance. In addition to having our own handy theme song, the We Belong Together campaign’s goal is to organize women from around the country for common-sense immigration policy reform because we see immigrant rights and immigration reform as a women’s issue. When you look at these policies through a gender lens, when you talk to women immigrants, or when you talk to the women neighbors of immigrants, we know that you can’t divorce this issue of gender and immigration. And that in fact, women across the country know that when women come together, we build stronger families, we build stronger communities. And in effect, that’s the goal of this campaign, which is to bring women together to fight for common-sense immigration policy reform because we currently know what’s happening isn’t working. It doesn’t serve any of our communities.

We’re also a co-steering committee member of the National Coalition for Immigrant Women’s Rights, which is providing some particularly deeper analysis about immigration reform and how it impacts the health of immigrant women. Some of the current proposals would have people wait 15 years before they are eligible for any federal benefits or subsidies in the Affordable Care Act. I think that’s a big problem that we have to address.

JA: So not only is there a lot of work to be done in immigration reform and how that relates to women’s health needs, but we’ve also had marriage equality in the news a lot lately with two major cases recently argued in front of the Supreme Court. And the right to marriage, the right to abortion, and the right to sexual intimacy, as you know, all spring from the same foundational right to privacy. How do you see reproductive rights and LGBT rights as intertwined and interdependent?

MY: They are completely intertwined and interdependent. When I worked at the LGBT Community Center, one of the projects that I oversaw in the end in my last couple of years was called the “Causes in Common” project or campaign. And that campaign was really aimed at bringing the LGBT liberation movement into closer alignment and working relationships with the reproductive rights, health, and justice movement.

The genesis for that project really started with the stories of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people that we worked with within the center’s family program. “Center Kids” was the name of the center’s family program. And in the early days there were literally empty rooms where we set up chairs in circles and LGBT people would come and talk about their longing and desire for family and to have children.

And these support groups started as ways for LGBT folks to brainstorm ways that they could create family. And through those conversations it was obviously really clear that family formation and the barriers that LGBT people face were the same ones and the same issues that were being addressed by the reproductive rights, health, and justice movement.

So Causes in Common was created to provide some analysis of how our movements are really intertwined, and we put together a policy paper that outlines some of our key similarities. We have the same enemies, you know, at the very basic level—the same people who hate abortion are the same people who hate LGBT people, so at the very base level there. But secondly, it really is about this idea of where reproduction and sexuality fit in our lives, and we know that sexuality and reproduction are profound and intimate parts of our experience. And that reproduction is a choice that evolves out of sexuality, and it doesn’t have to be an unavoidable consequence of sexuality.

This all falls down to individual human autonomy in the conduct of our sexual lives, whether that be sleeping with the person you love—regardless of gender—or deciding when and where to have kids and if to have kids. They’re all underpinned by the same concept about sexual liberation and self-determination. And, as you pointed out, Roe v. Wade undergirds the majority of the LGBT rights legal wins that we’ve had. Lawrence v. Texas was decided with Roe v. Wade really at the heart of it. So all of the gains that the LGBT movement has made I think owes a debt to the feminist movement that created Roe v. Wade.

JA: Forty years from now, what legal or policy decision do you hope we’ll be celebrating?

MY: We really are at a nexus of figuring out as a country if and how we support families and communities. Or are we really just for a single rugged, individualist kind of vision of this country? And I think we see this play out at the heart of all the exciting social movements NAPAWF is a part of, but that the progressive movement is really grappling with. The LGBT movement has made incredible gains in thinking about family, and love, and commitment, and unity. The anti-immigration movement right now wants to undo some of the family-based values that have always underpinned our immigration policies.

And I think that’s a mistake. We are a nation that is not made up of just individuals. In fact, what makes us great are the communities and societies we build. And you can’t do that just by lifting up individual experiences or just by sending people out and imagining that they can make do all on their own. In fact, 40 years from now, my hope is that we have a kinder, more caring version of politics that knows and lifts up the fact that all of our stories are intertwined, that no one struggle is unique, and that we are a more successful country when we care about each other.

JA: Thank you so much for your time today and for coming to speak with us.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Jessica Arons is the Director of the Women’s Health and Rights Program at the Center for American Progress.

* The correct name of the measure is the “Page Act.”

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This is part of a special series: Roe at 40 Podcast Series

For more from this series, click here