7 Laws That Punish Women For Having Children

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The concept of American womanhood is changing every day, and many young women are choosing not to have children until much later in life, if at all. Women have a lot more options today for how and when to start a family, but a look into some of the laws in the United States shows that that choice still isn't freely made. Several American laws that punish women for having children still exist, making it harder for women to be the kind of moms that they want to be.

The United States' long history of legalized gender discrimination remains alive and well, and it's still evident in the way that women have to care for their children. American women play a never-ending balancing act, deciding what to sacrifice in order to have kids, trying to keep their families afloat with diminishing help from the government, or being shamed for not having kids at all.

From TRAP laws to the Equal Pay Act, there are several pieces of legislation that disproportionately harm women, and make it more challenging for women who have children to support their families — and themselves. Without the proper laws in place to protect them, as well as the societal barriers that women face both in the workplace and in their communities, women face systemic challenges in their efforts to bear and raise children freely. And amending these seven laws that punish women for having children — though some may seem unrelated at first glance — would be crucial in providing mothers a sound and safe support system.

1TRAP Laws

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Targeted Regulation of Abortion Providers (TRAP) laws basically create conditions that make it nearly impossible for women to access abortion in their areas (think HB-2, the Texas law that was struck down by the Supreme Court in Whole Woman Health v. Hellerstadt). 60 percent of women seeking abortions have already given birth to one child, so these restrictions that prevent them from choosing when or how to expand their family are, in essence, punishments for having the audacity to already have children.

2The Maximum Family Grant Rule

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According to Slate, 16 states have laws that deny financial assistance to children born into families that have received benefits within a certain period of time. "Family caps were designed to make life more difficult for low-income mothers, to thrust them deeper into poverty, and thereby discourage births," wrote Jamelle Bouie, Slate's chief political correspondent. The law is being repealed in California, but women in those 15 other states are still being punished for pregnancy.

3Granting Rapists' Parental Rights

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If you get pregnant as a result of rape and decide to keep the child, you may have to fight your rapist for custody. In more than half of all U.S. states, a rapist can get parental rights, even if they were convicted for the rape. It forces women into two choices — get an abortion they might not want, or be forced to go through years of legal battles and meetings with their attacker.

4The Federal Minimum Wage

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According to the Economic Policy Institute, about 56 percent of low-income wage workers are female, and 28 percent have kids. Plus they each earn, on average, half of their family's income. That means that some 15 percent of workers who make less than $10.10 per hour have to work to support themselves and their children, a huge financial burden that often receives little attention in Washington, D.C.

Furthermore, some conservatives perpetuate myths that low-income workers spend their income on drugs, and that the minimum wage creates more problems than it solves. That leaves the mothers who are minimum wage earners punished rather than being provided assistance for trying to take care of their families.  

5The Equal Pay Act Of 1963

The name of this bill sounds promising, but it hasn't done much to actually help women since it was passed. According to the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, men are still allowed to be paid more than women based on seniority, merit, or productivity, just so long as the wage gap isn't overtly based on sexism. However, that's still allowed for women to remain underpaid and undervalued in the workplace, since they tend to take on more of the burden of childcare.

6Birth Certificates

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A law proposed in the Illinois state legislature in 2016 would have prevented single mothers from getting birth certificates, and therefore aid from the state, for their baby if they refused to or couldn't name the father of the child. Some argue that the lawmakers who crafted the bill were just trying to make sure that the baby's father wasn't allowing the state to pick up the financial responsibility for the child, but it mostly just seemed like one more way to restrict a woman's choice on how to be a mom. The bill is still sitting in committee.

7Paid Family Leave

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This isn't a law so much as a lack of one. The United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that doesn't mandate paid maternity leave by law, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 13 percent of American workers receive it. The current law in place allows women 12 weeks of unpaid leave, but many women have to go back to work much sooner than that so they can start providing for their families again.

For women in America, it oftentimes boils down to a choice between their careers and their children. Laws that punish women for having children, or don't give them the protection and assistance that they need to raise them, aren't only harmful for women — they're harmful for society.