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Violence Against Women Act Still In Limbo


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up in my Can I Just Tell You essay, I want to share some thoughts and some surprising facts about violence in relationships. That's in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for the Beauty Shop. That's where we get a fresh cut on the week's news with a panel of women writers, journalists and commentators.

Sitting in the chairs for a new do this week are Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief at the website, The Wise Latina Club. Bridget Johnson is Washington, D.C. editor for P.J. Media. That's a conservative libertarian commentary and news website. Melinda Henneberger is with us. She writes about politics and culture at The Washington Post and oversees their She the People blog. They're all here in D.C.

Welcome back, ladies. Thanks so much for joining us all again.

VIVIANA HURTADO: Thanks for having us, Michel.

BRIDGET JOHNSON: Thanks for having us.


MARTIN: Now, we were thinking about the fact that a lot of attention has been paid to the budget and these negotiations around deficit reduction package. People are hearing so much where they're probably sick of it. This whole question of the fiscal cliff. But that's not the only issue in front of Congress right now.

There's a push to pass a new version of the Violence Against Women Act. The law had received bipartisan support from the time it originally passed in 1994, but now the Senate is putting forward a broader version and House Republicans are balking at that.

The Senate version seeks new protections for illegal immigrants, as well as gay and lesbian victims and Native American victims, but those changes have become a sticking point and I spoke earlier with Republican representative, Sandy Adams. She is, herself, interestingly enough, a survivor of domestic violence. She's also a veteran of law enforcement and she believes that the expansion of the Violence Against Women Act is unnecessary. I'll just play a short clip from that conversation.

REPRESENTATIVE SANDY ADAMS: It has been an all-inclusive bill from the very beginning, since '94. It says all victims and I think that that needs to be impressed upon a lot of people that it says all victims. A victim is a victim.

MARTIN: Bridget Johnson, I'm going to start with you because, you know, there's been an awful lot of politics around this bill and I know that a lot of Republicans feel that the Democrats have been kind of using this bill as a wedge issue to portray them as anti-woman, but aside from the politics, if we can do that, what are the substantive objections? Because the Democrats say these changes are based on best practices, what they believe actually work. What do Republicans say to that?

JOHNSON: Well, you know, I think there's only one of the objections that's actually going to hold some water. As far as the LGBT rights, one of the arguments that was being made when it originally came out of the Senate was that - well, but they're not legally recognized as couples. Well, that has nothing to do with it because we're talking about intimate partner violence, so it's whoever your intimate partner is.

So the negotiations that are going on between Eric Cantor and Joe Biden - the gay rights part and the illegal immigrants part are basically being settled, so we're left with this Native American part. Huge problem. With Native American women being abused and the non-native men who are abusing them basically getting away with it because there's this loophole of, you know, you have to go to the federal court and, you know, in these areas, that's really hard to come by, at some point. So these men really kind of basically think they can get away with it.

Now, the problem with the Senate bill is that it gives the tribal courts jurisdiction to be able to try the non-native men, but only with these domestic crime type areas. So, you know, I'm looking at the Senate bill. I'm looking at a House alternative that offered by Rep Darrell Issa that said, you know, well, if you're not happy with the tribal court, then you can demand to be tried in federal court.

But I think it's something that would end up in the Supreme Court because you'd have to say, OK. So let's rethink the entire thing of tribal jurisdiction. You know, are you going to try for some crimes? For every crime? And then I think that it's - as the British would say...

MARTIN: You think these are real issues?

JOHNSON: Yeah. It's - as the British would say, it's a bit of a sticky wicket.

MARTIN: It's a sticky wicket. You really think there are substantive, legitimate legal objections and it's not just a matter of people not being sensitive to the issue. Is that the bottom line?

JOHNSON: I do. I think, unless you're like Phyllis Schlafly, you know, most conservatives don't disagree with vowel and principle. I think that there's also a lot of repair that needs to be done in the GOP after the legitimate rape comment, so I think it's a good faith effort on Cantor's part to be able to negotiate this.

MARTIN: Well, Viviana, though, one of the other criticisms of the Senate bill is that there are people - and it's interesting that we've been actually getting a lot of mail on this point from people who believe that this - because it will open a special visa designated for victims of violence, there are those who feel that this would open the door to fraud, that this becomes another avenue for fraud. And I have to ask. What's your perspective on this?

HURTADO: Right. And, to clarify, for illegal immigrant victims of domestic violence, they could receive what is a temporary visa, not be granted U.S. citizenship and what that temporary visa would do, Michel, is stay any deportation. And I think what's really important to, you know, really keep in mind is, when we're talking about the victims of domestic violence, who are they? Well, these are battered moms, women, girlfriends, friends, neighbors, coworkers. Let's just put a face to who they are.

And, you know, I think it's really important to just kind of draw this parallel to think that they would lie, to commit fraud to gain this kind of temporary visa is kind of the equivalent of saying that, if the House has its way and is able to exclude illegal immigrant victims, then you know, abusers are going to go out and find illegal immigrant victims, women to beat the beep out of. And I think that's not just a preposterous thought, but it's incredibly inhumane and, you know, just to think, as well, that a lot of the people who have supported the Senate version, it's law enforcement. It's religious communities, including the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the GOP tie into what Bridget just says after the election and the legitimate rape comment. They've got to decide what side that they want to be on.

MARTIN: Melinda Henneberger, what about you? What's your perspective on this?

HENNEBERGER: I think it really says a lot about our priorities. I doubt that this is a problem and about our really broken political system. I mean, I don't disagree that it sounds like there is a legal question of jurisdiction to be settled and that there is concern over potential fraud. But is that more important than the lives of three women in this country who die every day as a result of domestic violence? And I agree with Viviana that we just have to decide if that's important to us to address and I would say - I would really hope it is.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're having our weekly visit with our panel of women journalists and commentators. We call it the Beauty Shop. Our guests are Washington Post political writer, Melinda Henneberger, Bridget Johnson, Washington, D.C. editor at P.J. Media and Viviana Hurtado, blogger-in-chief at The Wise Latina Club.

And I want to move on to another topic that's unfortunately related. I'm actually talking about this a little bit later in my essay at the end of this segment. In the wake of this terrible murder-suicide by pro football player Jovan Belcher, there's been a renewed conversation about whether - you know, obviously, this doesn't affect just athletes, but there has been a lot of conversation about - there's something about the entitlement culture, particularly football because it is the most watched sport in the United States, that somehow enables violence against women.

And, Melinda Henneberger, you wrote about this recently as part of a lot of reporting that you've been doing around a very terrible case at your alma mater, Notre Dame, during college football's championship game in January. Could you just briefly tell us what it is that so troubles you about the way that your alma mater is addressing these complaints?

HENNEBERGER: Well, what I was writing about in the piece is, since Notre Dame is, you know, headed to the national championship, a number of my fellow alums have said, you know, I agree with you that the way they treat sexual assault reports is abysmal and, you know, we had this terrible cover-up following the death of a young woman named Lizzy Seeberg two years ago who committed suicide 10 days after reporting that she'd been sexually assaulted by a member of the Notre Dame football team.

The school's response was that they didn't get around to even speaking to the accused until 15 days after the report. That is five days after the woman was dead, so you know, she had received threatening texts from a friend of the football player, saying you don't - messing with Notre Dame football is a bad idea. And she saw, in short, you know, what the response was going to be.

So a lot of my fellow alums have said - and there was another case of a young woman who was taken to the hospital - to the E.R. a few months after that, saying that she had been raped by a different football player and that case was never reported officially, but...

MARTIN: So do you feel that this is unique to - and very briefly here because I want to hear from the other panelists...


MARTIN: Do you feel that this is unique to Notre Dame where football is very highly valued or do you think there's something more broad here?

HENNEBERGER: You know, I was going to say my fellow alums say, well, it's just a couple of guys. It's just a couple of bad apples, but I say how many predators would have to be on the team before you'd no longer feel like cheering for them? And, even more troubling to me than the action that - the terrible actions of these men is the response of the school in a place where, you know, their morality is marketed.

And I just wonder, you know, to have a whispering campaign against this young woman whose reputation has really been dragged through the mud by people who run the university in the two years since then so that they can, you know, protect the brand. And I think, at places like Notre Dame and Penn State, there's an extra temptation to protect the brand at all costs because they're marketing their moral superiority.

MARTIN: Bridget Johnson, I - running out of time to talk about this very complicated and important topic, but you actually lettered in varsity football in high school, among your other surprising gifts. Can I ask you your perspective on this? I mean, some people think this is really a bad rap on college sports, in general, because they just feel that just - football's an easy target. The teams are big. The people, the players are big. What's your perspective on this, having kind of a unique perspective here?

JOHNSON: Yeah. There's definitely a stereotype of athletes and football players, in general, and you know, when you do hang around them day after day, practice games, etc. - yes - you know, it's basically most of what you'd think. It's macho. It's, you know, a lot of burping, dirty jokes, everything like that.

But, you know, I think it's very easy to also lump athletes, whether it be high school, college or pro into, you know, just kind of one segment and I think that, you know, you can find bad apples across the spectrum, you know, whether in the more academic pursuits or the athletic pursuits, you know, although there is this macho culture that's enforced there.

MARTIN: Or does it have to do with how much a particular group is valued in a particular place? I mean, is it really not about the thing itself, but how people feel about whatever that thing is in a particular place? You know, I mean, did you feel that the athletes in your world were treated differently, got a pass, got special treatment?

JOHNSON: You know, I wouldn't say insomuch special treatment. You know, I'd say, you know, held up on a pedestal, but you know, I look at this Notre Dame case and there was one sport side that pointed out, you know - listed incident after incident where football players had been reprimanded over the years for everything from D.U.I. to alcohol consumption, etc., so you know, I think it matters, depending on different factors.

MARTIN: We're going to keep following this and thank you. Melinda, thank you for your reporting on this. You've also done some very detailed reporting and I refer to some other columns that you've written about some personal experiences you've had that I think are really important.

Unfortunately, Viviana, we don't have time to hear from you on this.


MARTIN: We'll keep at it. Bridget Johnson is the Washington, D.C. editor for P.J. Media. That's the conservative libertarian commentary and news website. Melinda Henneberger is a political writer for the Washington Post. She runs the She the People blog. Viviana Hurtado is blogger-in-chief of The Wise Latina Club.

Thank you all so much.

HENNEBERGER: Thanks, Michel.

HURTADO: Thanks, Michel.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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