New York Times

May 20, 2002

A Quiet Attack on Women

By ELIZABETH WARREN
New York Times

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Women's rights are suddenly at the center of the Congressional debate over the nation's bankruptcy laws but only in the most cynical and opportunistic way. After five years of enormous contributions and lobbying from the financial industry, Congress now stands ready to dismantle protection for families under the nation's bankruptcy code. Diverting attention from the harm rewriting the law would do to women, members of Congress have managed to turn an argument about financial affairs into a debate over abortion.

Congressional negotiators are scheduled to meet Wednesday to see if they can reach a compromise on a bill that would make it harder for individuals to file for bankruptcy. At issue is a provision, included in the Senate's version but not in that of the House, that would prevent abortion opponents from declaring bankruptcy in order to avoid paying court fines and damages. If the negotiators can agree on a bill, President Bush is likely to sign it.

Banking and credit lobbyists have been trying to change the bankruptcy laws for years. The current bill was stuck in conference between the Senate and House until Senator Joseph Biden of Delaware where many banks and credit-card issuers are incorporated agreed to vote with Republicans on almost all the issues that were holding up the bill. But Mr. Biden also told his Democratic colleagues that he would support an amendment to stop abortion protesters from using bankruptcy protection to avoid damages they might otherwise have to pay for violating federal law in violent clinic protests.

Regardless of one's views of the amendment, the bill itself is unconscionable. If it becomes law, the economic effects on more than 1.2 million women each year will be devastating. Apparently many politicians believe they can remove the last safety net for families facing financial disaster (many of which are led by women) so long as they can find another highly visible issue that lets them proclaim their support for women.

In the past 20 years, bankruptcy filings for female-headed households have increased at more than double the rate of bankruptcies for comparable households with an adult male present. (Families with children are more economically vulnerable than those without, and since women keep the children more often in the case of divorce, more women are filing for bankruptcy.) Women married, divorced, widowed and single now outnumber men seeking bankruptcy protection by more than 300,000 a year. The more than one million women filing for bankruptcy protection this year will bring nearly two million children into bankruptcy court with them.

Most of these women will be in bankruptcy court for reasons beyond their control. More than 90 percent of women who file for bankruptcy have been hit by some combination of unemployment, medical bills and divorce. Women are more likely than men to seek bankruptcy in the aftermath of a divorce or a medical problem, though both men and women cite job problems as the biggest difficulty.

At the same time, 200,000 women will find themselves in bankruptcy court not as debtors but as creditors trying to collect alimony or child support from their ex-husbands. Traditionally, alimony and child support are nondischargeable, which means these debts must be repaid even if the ex-husband files for bankruptcy, because women and children, unlike commercial creditors who can choose their debtors, cannot charge their husbands or fathers a premium for being bad credit risks.

Yet in the pending legislation, credit-card companies and car lenders have devised a number of ways to ensure that more of their debt, including interest and penalties, is made similarly sacrosanct and payable forever. This puts divorced women in direct competition with credit-card companies for some of an ex-husband's limited income.

Some 30 women's groups, from the National Organization for Women to Hadassah to the Y.W.C.A., have announced their opposition to this bill. Do politicians like Mr. Biden who support the bankruptcy bill believe they can give credit-card companies the right to elbow out women and children so long as they rally behind an issue like abortion? The message is unmistakable: On an economic issue that attracts millions of dollars of industry support, women have no real political importance.

Wednesday's meeting of the House-Senate conference is the final showdown. Will the credit industry's bankruptcy bill pass the conference? Or will it stall over the issue of abortion? If Senator Charles Schumer, who wrote the abortion provision in the Senate bill, holds his ground, he will do a great service to the women who have fought hard for their rights to access to abortion clinics. But if the amendment prevents the bill's passage, he will do an even greater service to hundreds of thousands of women trying to collect child support and to millions more who are trying to survive after financial disaster.

These women are not fighting a pro-life or pro-choice battle. They are just fighting to make it to the next payday.

Elizabeth Warren is a professor at Harvard Law School.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company