The XX Factor

House Hears Arguments on Anti-Abortion Bill with Racist Overtones

Contrary to the claims of anti-choice activists, U.S. women do not discriminate against female fetuses.


A Congressional subcommittee is holding a Thursday-afternoon hearing on a bill that would ban abortions obtained because of the fetus’s sex. Advocates for the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) claim they’re simply trying to prevent sex discrimination. But laws like these, which already exist in eight states, are rooted in the racist notion that Asian-American women abort female fetuses because they prefer boys.

The bill has come up before previous sessions of Congress. In 2011, ThinkProgress reports, it was dubbed the Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act and would have banned race-based abortions, too. (The two luminaries named in the act point to the classic anti-choice argument that we shouldn’t abort fetuses because they could grow up to be famous civil rights activists.) That bill failed, but it’s reemerged in various forms since then.

Every time right-wing activists raise the concept of sex-selective abortions, they further a misleading narrative that defames Asian-American women. On Wednesday, the anti-choice Charlotte Lozier Institute released a paper written by Anna Higgins, who is one member of a panel testifying before Thursday’s House Subcommittee on the Constitution and Civil Justice. “Sex selection in favor of males is practiced in some Asian immigrant communities within the U.S.,” the report reads.

Studies have disproven this claim. “In the United States, there is limited and inconclusive evidence that immigrants from [East and South Asia]—or anywhere else—are obtaining sex-selective abortions,” the Guttmacher Institute reports. Bans on sex-selective abortions are barely enforceable—there’s nothing to stop a woman from hiding her reason for wanting an abortion—but they do burden providers, who must question all women about their reasoning. The laws also create a culture of stigma around abortion-seeking Asian-American women and immigrants, who already face barriers to contraception and reproductive health services.

These bans don’t have any effect on the number of female fetuses carried to term, either. When the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum analyzed sex ratios at birth in Illinois and Pennsylvania five years before and after the states passed sex-selective abortion bans, it found that the laws were not responsible for any changes in the ratios. That didn’t stop Indiana’s state legislature from passing a similar anti-abortion law, which Governor Mike Pence signed into law late last month. The bill prohibits abortions for reason of a fetus’s race, sex, or any disability, including Down Syndrome; even Indiana Republicans found it too extreme. Seven other states currently ban abortions obtained for reason of sex: Arizona, Kansas, North Carolina, South Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota, which is the only state besides Indiana to ban abortions based on genetic anomaly or disability.

Cloaking racist bills in the term “nondiscrimination” falls in line with the en vogue tactic of anti-choice advocates: using the rhetoric of women’s rights to camouflage legislation that actually restricts their rights. We’ve seen it in laws that hamper women’s health providers under the guise of protecting women’s health, and we’re seeing it at Thursday’s House subcommittee hearing, where anti-choice activists are testifying to false information that stigmatizes Asian-American women while feigning concern for Asian-American female fetuses.

If members of Congress were truly worried about sex discrimination, they’d work to mitigate the gender wage gap, enforce Title IX provisions for survivors of sexual assault, and get guns out of the hands of domestic abusers—you know, policies that have actually been proven to help women. And if members of Congress truly wanted to preserve even sex ratios at birth, they’d seek to ban sex selection at other steps along the route to pregnancy, such as sperm sorting and genetic testing before in vitro fertilization.

But they’re not, because PRENDA is just another way Republicans are trying to prohibit abortions point blank. “There are better ways to combat gender bias than taking away a woman’s ability to make personal, private medical decisions,” wrote three activist women of color when PRENDA surfaced in 2012. A woman’s reason for obtaining a legal medical procedure shouldn’t be subject to any politician’s litigation.

Correction, April 14, 2016: This post originally stated that the hearing occurred in the Senate. It occurred in the House of Representatives.