Racist violence targeting Asian women seems to be at an all-time high. Earlier this year, a white man shot and killed six Asian women in Atlanta, motivated by his racist, misogynist fantasies that convinced him they were a sexual “temptation.” These dehumanizing attacks have ignited a crucial national dialogue on how to support Asian communities—and especially Asian women—at this time of increased fear and violence.
That said, efforts to stop anti-Asian racism are incomplete without addressing the disproportionate racist barriers Asian communities face to get health care—and this includes abortion care. For years, perpetuation of the white supremacist “model minority” myth has pitted a specific high-achieving class of Asian Americans against all other people of color, and erased the many Asian Americans who don’t fit this narrative. The myth has also erased the generational traumas and ongoing struggles of vastly diverse Asian communities. Access to abortion and reproductive care is among these struggles.
From the cost of the health service without insurance coverage, to being forced to travel great distances (90 percent of U.S. counties lack an abortion clinic), too many barriers exist for anyone seeking abortion care. Asian women and pregnant folks seeking care are also impacted by so-called sex and race-selective abortion bans, which were solely created to interrogate and police the reasons someone might seek abortion, and push abortion out of reach.
These bans make it illegal for a provider to offer care if they suspect their patient wants to end the pregnancy due to preference for the sex of the fetus. They’re rooted in anti-Asian, anti-immigrant stereotypes that falsely suggest Asian women end pregnancies because they prefer sons.
“Sex-selective” abortion bans weaponize racist, fearmongering narratives that immigrants and people of color bring “backwards” values from their homelands to the United States. These laws, which are currently in effect in 11 states, can lead to the profiling of Asian women and pregnant people who seek abortion care, potentially subjecting them to racist questioning or even denying them care altogether.
These reason-based abortion bans are especially dangerous, as they require doctors, nurses, and health-care workers who even suspect a patient may be seeking abortion care due to the race or sex of the fetus to report them to law enforcement. Police and the criminal justice system have a long history of targeting communities of color. They also have a history of criminalizing, punishing, and incarcerating people who have abortions or lose their pregnancies, often weaponizing the very feticide laws that are meant to protect pregnant folks against them, or charging them with child endangerment, abuse of a corpse, and other charges.
Two of the most high-profile cases of people being criminalized and prosecuted for self-managed abortions or pregnancy loss involve Asian women: Purvi Patel, initially sentenced to 20 years in prison for allegedly taking medication abortion and having a stillbirth in 2013; and Bei Bei Shuai, who lost a pregnancy after attempting to take her own life.
As states across the country move to pass abortion bans at an alarming rate, and with a hostile Supreme Court and judicial system, many reproductive rights and justice advocates are concerned by the ongoing criminalization of self-managed abortion and pregnancy loss. The cases of Patel and Shuai also serve as an important reminder that Asian women and people of color are disproportionately targeted and regarded as suspicious.
“AAPI women, low-income women and all women are stigmatized for their abortion decisions,” the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum said in a statement in 2016, shortly after Patel was released from prison. “AAPI women’s reproductive decision-making continues to be highly scrutinized. By prosecuting Patel, the State has already discouraged women of color, particularly AAPI women and immigrant women, from seeking medical care based on fear of arrest and punishment.”
Many Asian women and pregnant folks who seek abortion and reproductive care also face added cost barriers: They may be uninsured, unable to seek insurance coverage due to their immigration status, or struggling financially. Forty percent of recent immigrants to the United States come from Asia, and an estimated 1.7 million out of 18 million Asian Americans are undocumented. More than a quarter of undocumented Asian migrants in the country live below the poverty line.
Insurance coverage among Asian Americans varies widely across communities. As of 2019, 7.4 percent of Asian and Pacific Islanders in the United States are uninsured, while some Asian subgroups rely on Medicaid and public health coverage at higher rates than the overall U.S. population.
According to recent data, 31.8 percent of Vietnamese Americans, 26.2 percent of Filipino Americans, 27 percent of Chinese Americans, and 25.6 percent across all Asian groups rely on Medicaid or other public health coverage. Because of the Hyde Amendment, Medicaid is prohibited from covering abortion care with few exceptions, a policy that harms Asian women and pregnant people who are struggling financially.
Across the country, the majority of people who have abortions are people of color, and different Asian American communities have wide-ranging views on abortion. Among the many harms perpetuated by model minority myths about Asians is the erasure of people and experiences that don’t adhere to white supremacist standards of excellence and perfection. That certainly includes unwanted pregnancy and abortion, which remain mired in racist stigma. This stigma, rooted in white supremacy and the dehumanization of women of color, harms everyone who has an abortion, and can bring shame to Asian women and pregnant people.
This Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, persistent racism and sexism shouldered by Asian women has been painfully brought to the forefront of cultural consciousness. Supporting Asian women and pregnant people’s dignity, safety, and autonomy requires supporting their access to reproductive care like abortion—and tearing down the racist myths and stereotypes that erase the need for abortion care in Asian communities.