Sex-Selective Abortion Bans Highlight Faultlines in the Reproductive Rights Movement

South Dakota could soon become the eighth state in the country to pass a sex-selective abortion ban. Yet these bills have yet to merit a larger conversation, either within the national reproductive rights and feminist movements or in the news more generally.

Sex-selection bans have indeed proliferated throughout the US. They have also merited relative silence from the mainstream reproductive rights movement. dan izzo / YouTube

On March 5, the South Dakota house passed a bill that would ban abortions based on the sex of the fetus, otherwise known as “sex-selective” abortions. State Reps. Stace Nelson (R-Fulton) and Don Haggar (R-Sioux Falls) both invoked the changing demographic in South Dakota as their primary motivation for supporting the bill. Haggar noted on the house floor, “Let me tell you, our population in South Dakota is a lot more diverse than it ever was. There are cultures that look at a sex-selection abortion as being culturally OK. And I will suggest to you that we are embracing individuals from some of those cultures in this country, or in this state.”

Sex-selection bans, which have proliferated around the country as of late, are often proposed in the context of race, invoking Asian-American immigrants to a state. If the South Dakota bill passes, the state, which has a history of passing extreme anti-choice legislation, will become the eighth in the country to pass a sex-selective abortion ban. Yet these bills have yet to merit a larger conversation, either within the national reproductive rights and feminist movements or in the news more generally. This is a dynamic anticipated by Steven Mosher, the head of the conservative, anti-choice Population Research Institute, back in 2008:

I propose that we – the pro-life movement – adopt as our next goal the banning of sex- and race-selective abortion. By formally protecting all female fetuses from abortion on the ground of their sex, we would plant in the law the proposition that the developing child is a being whose claims on us should not depend on their sex.

This sense of contradiction will be further heightened among radical feminists, the shock troops of the abortion movement. They may believe that the right to abortion is fundamental to women’s emancipation, but many will recoil at the thought of aborting their unborn sisters. How can they, who so oppose patriarchy and discrimination on the basis of sex, consent to ultimate form of patriarchy and discrimination, namely, the elimination of baby girls solely on account of their sex? Many, it is safe to predict, will be silent, while others will raise their voices, but with less conviction.

While the pro-aborts are stammering and stuttering, we pro-lifers will be advancing new moral and logical arguments against the exercise of the “right” to an abortion solely on the grounds of sex or race. For those who are immune to moral arguments, we can also use the examples of China and India, where sex-selective abortion is creating enormous societal problems. The debate over sex- and race-selective abortion will also help to focus the public’s attention on how unregulated the abortion industry is. In these and other ways, the debate over this legislation will not subtract from, but add to, the larger goal of reversing Roe v. Wade and, ultimately, passing a Human Life Amendment.

Politically, the timing is right for such a move. Barack Husain Obama has broke the last color barrier by becoming the first African American to be nominated for president, while Sarah Palin is poised to shatter the glass ceiling. It is paradoxical that, at this time of great achievements, that civil rights protections for women and minorities should be eroding at the very beginning of life, in the womb. Decades of progress on both fronts are being threatened reversed by technology that allows people to act on their deepest prejudices in secret.

Rep. Hagar knows, as Steven Mosher did before him, that these bans on sex-selective abortion are a means to an end—the end, of course, being banning all abortions. Given that sex-selective abortions are not an actual phenomenon here in the United States, what is it about this kind of abortion that might lead Mosher to conclude that feminists would fail to oppose these bans? Perhaps he was thinking of the complicated, ongoing relationship of the pro-choice movement to issues of race and class, and the fact that some proponents of a woman’s right to have an abortion have made population control arguments to justify their position.

Anti-choice legislators who support sex-selective bans rely on a tricky, and deeply racist, argument. It goes like this: Asian cultures (no nuance contained herein about the multitude of Asian cultures that exist), particularly Asian women, and all Asian Americans generally, think sex selection is acceptable. In order to protect these women (the woman and her female fetus), and the entire community of Asians in the United States, from their sexist ways, we must enact anti-sex-selection laws. Sex selection is a sexist act, so in order to protect women from their own cultural prejudices, we are justified in eliminating their right to access abortion.

This flawed line of reasoning lays bare gross generalizations and racist beliefs about Asian Americans, and a distrust of Asian women. Furthermore, it is countered by the explicit argument made by anti-choice leaders like Steven Mosher, who knew that the argument was disingenuous and that such legislation was intended to exploit longstanding tensions on the topic within the pro-choice movement.

Here’s another example of how racial tensions within the pro-choice movement are deployed by anti-choice advocates: In 2010, hundreds of billboards went up around the country claiming that “Black Children are an Endangered Species,” “The Most Dangerous Place for a African-American Child Is in the Womb,” and “The Most Dangerous Place for a Latino Is in the Womb.” The architects of this billboard campaign, as Mosher encouraged, repeatedly professed their concern for future of the Black and Latino communities. These concerns are rooted in the belief that abortion is “genocide,” and that Black and Latino women fall prey to coercive abortion providers who target them. While there is indeed a complicated history of eugenic practices and beliefs contained in the legacy of the U.S. pro-choice movement, the message is disingenuous and dangerous. The goal of the anti-race-selection bans is to undo Roe. Similarly, the SD legislation introduced last week is based on the unfounded belief that Asian-American women are prey to a transnational cultural belief in son-preference. Sex-selective bans like these argue that providers deliberately use coercive tactics in soliciting African-American, Latino, and Asian-American women.

If laws like South Dakota’s pass, the consequences are dire. They provide an opportunity for states to question a patient’s motives for seeking abortion and profile Asian women. The intent is to undermine doctor-patient confidentiality and to intimidate doctors who provide abortions for women of color and potentially to threaten them with criminal sanctions. Ultimately, this erosion of access has the effect of stigmatizing and limiting access to abortion services in communities of color.

Let’s return again to the facts: the purported problem of Asian Americans and sex-selection is not borne out by data. Sex is generally determined at about 18 to 20 weeks into a pregnancy, a point at which only 3.8 percent of abortions occur in the United States. As reported in Mother Jones, the two studies cited in the South Dakota legislation “found that in some Asian American groups, couples are more likely to have a son as their third child if their first two children are female. But neither study concluded this pattern was the result of sex-selective abortions.”

In the United States, access to reproductive rights has been anchored in the notion of absolute choice. Our political argument is tied to the right to privacy and the belief that a woman’s body is her own and her choice is paramount. What happens within the feminist, pro-choice movement when there is a challenge, from the left or the right, about how we maintain our commitment to reproductive freedom when our opposition asserts that there should be some limits to choice? Given that there are indeed places in the world where sex-selective abortion is occurring, and that there is a history of racist, eugenic practices in the United States, how can our movement for reproductive freedom speak up against race and sex-selective abortions and also maintain a strong argument for the right to access abortion?

The first step is to acknowledge this very question, which leads directly to the next step of understanding the history, both of the eugenic practices here in the United States, and the population control practices abroad. As I’ve noted, many organizations and scholars have challenged the racist beliefs that are at the heart of the argument made by Reps. Nelson and Haggar while maintaining a commitment to abortion access. Many Black and Latin@ feminists have acknowledged the contentious history of the reproductive rights movement and offered a racial justice framework. The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum has launched a petition against the South Dakota ban and argued in the past that “[r]ace- and sex-selective abortion bans further stigmatize women of color. Race-selective abortion bans target Black women and suggest that they are not capable of responsibly making their own reproductive health decisions and are complicit in so-called ‘Black genocide.’ Sex-selective abortion bans perpetuate negative stereotypes about Asian American women and the broader Asian American community, as well as anti-immigrant sentiment.”

In terms of the international contexts of sex-selection, many Asian movements and activists clearly distinguish between the right to terminate a pregnancy and the right to choose the sex of one’s baby. Both India and China have outlawed sex determination, and while enforcement of their laws is an ongoing challenge, the socio-political analysis by Asian feminists here in the United States and abroad can be of great use to our movement, even if our political contexts are different. Mara Hivstendhal meticulously documents in her book Unnatural Selection that abortion was introduced in many Asian nations as a population control method, not as a woman’s right. Access to abortion came to places like India with a great deal of Western coercion. Ignoring that history is a form of erasure. And it prevents us from collectively mobilizing and strategizing together. Importantly, understanding this history in the United States and connecting with transnational movements for reproductive freedom means that reproductive rights advocates here do not need to start from scratch in offering an anti-racist argument in response to sex-selection bans.

If we believe that the best way to counter sexism in any form is not to further restrict reproductive rights, then we must broaden the scope of what matters and commit to a racial justice ethic: because it plays into the hands of those who seek to eliminate all access to abortion and because access for some of us at the expense of others is not justice.