Last year, nearly 500 restrictions on abortion and reproductive choice were proposed at the state level nation-wide. Among those abortion restrictions were bans on sex-selective abortion; bans that have now passed in eight states — Arizona, Illinois, North and South Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Kansas and North Carolina.
Advanced by Republican pro-life legislators, the ban on sex-selective abortions cite concerns that appear superficially feminist: to protect the “unborn” from gender discrimination prior to birth. Further, these bans are based on the assertion that male-biased birth ratios are evidence of sex-selective abortion; that these male-biased birth ratios are only found in India and China; that these male-biased birth ratios are evidence of sex-selective abortion occurring in the United States; that the growing influx of Asian women immigrants from India and China means sex-selective abortion is occurring here; and that the U.S. is one of the few remaining countries in the world that has yet to ban sex-selective abortion. As I wrote about last year, these are the kinds of arguments that are being expressed on the floor of state legislatures, and they are succeeding in restricting reproductive rights for women living in those states.
Yet, closer examination of the arguments of Republican legislators reveals that it is predominantly unfounded and wholly racist anti-Asian stereotypes — not facts — that serve as the principle justification for these recent restrictions on sex-selective abortions.
Last week, the National Asian Pacific American Woman’s Forum (@NAPAWF) published a comprehensive study in conjunction with The University of Chicago Law School’s International Human Rights Clinic and Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH) that show just how deeply racist GOP lawmakers have been in advancing the dubious cause of sex-selective abortion. And what is most galling is how skillfully these GOP lawmakers have been in hiding their anti-Asian and anti-woman rhetoric.
Birth ratios are typically expressed as a number reflecting the number of male children that are born relative to female children; the normal sex ratio is 1.05 — 105 male children are born for every 100 female children — reflecting what seems to be a slight biological predisposition for male children. Any number higher than 1.05 is considered “male-biased”.
NAPAWF’s study dismantles the myth that male-biased birth ratios are evidence of sex-selective abortion and are only found in India and China. Instead, NAPAWF argues that male-biased birth ratios can occur naturally, and through sex selection during in vitro fertilization therapies. Furthermore, NAPAWF compellingly notes that — contrary to the arguments of those in favour of sex-selective abortion bans — male-biased birth ratios are not limited to India and China; instead, high male birth rates relative to females are found in many countries throughout the world. The highest male-biased birth ratio is in Liechtenstein and Armenia, both countries that are predominantly White. In fact, only four of the 13 countries with birth ratios exceeding the biological average (1.05) are Asian.
Proponents of sex-selective abortion cite a single scientific study — Almond and Edlund 2008 (see this post for the data from that paper) — that claims that Asian families that have two girl children are more likely to have a son for their third child, a finding that pro-life legislators argue is evidence of sex-selective abortion. However, the data used in this study suffered from small sample size, and also assessed out-dated data from over 15 years ago. NAPAWF’s study used a larger ACS dataset from recent years and determined that birth ratios are similar for US-born and foreign-born Asian Americans. They found that US-born and foreign-born Asian Americans have birth ratios similar to — or in some cases lower than — US-born Whites.
And while NAPAWF’s study recapitulates Almond and Edlund’s finding that Asian American families are slightly more likely to have a male child after having two girls, NAPAWF’s study also shows that Asian American families are more likely to have a female child as their first child, and after having two boys; these data strongly argue against widespread sex-selective abortion practices among Asian Americans.
Finally, NAPAWF conducted a survey of Asian Americans, asking if they had any preference for the gender of their child, and found that most parents — as expected — didn’t care.
So, the notion that Asian Americans by and large are so biased against female children that Asian and Asian American women are en masse aborting them in utero? A racist myth that I noted previously draws upon archaic stereotypes of Asian American women as inscrutable, immoral and barbaric.
Instead, sex-selective abortion bans are thinly-veiled attempts to place greater limitations on the reproductive choices of women by restricting abortion access; and, in this case, are justified through wildly unscientific and anti-Asian rhetoric. In some cases, sex-selective abortion bans are being passed in states where abortion is already banned for the gestational age when the sex of a fetus can even be determined. In the two states — Illinois and Pennsylvania — where sex-selective birth ratios have been in effect for over a decade, NAPAWF reports zero impact on the sex ratio at birth for all women in the state, or for Asian American women in particular.
Functionally, therefore, sex-selective abortion bans do nothing more than add greater stress to women undergoing the process of seeking a legal abortion, all in service of a larger pro-life agenda to overturn Roe v. Wade. Pro-life legislators have even said as much; writes NAPAWF:
In short, these abortion bans are predicated upon an entirely manufactured issue.
And if we want evidence of just how manufactured this issue is, consider this map showing where sex-selective abortion bans have been passed:
That’s right, legislatively, these eight states are following in the example set by China, Vietnam and Kosovo. Contrary to pro-life arguments, there are almost no countries in the world that have passed restrictions on sex-selective abortions. Why? Because internationally it is largely a non-issue.
Yet, the myth of Asian sex-selective abortion easily fits into America’s stereotypical narratives of the barbaric, backwards, and patriarchal East — the final frontier of misogyny where we imagine that Confucian sexism and empty morals facilitate the widespread and unconscionable murder of girl babies. And while, there is some evidence of female infanticide and sex-selective abortion in rural areas of China (exacerbated by China’s One Child Policy) and other parts of Asia, NAPAWF demonstrates that male-biased birth ratios are most closely related to familial poverty, and there is zero evidence that such practices are occurring in the United States among recent Asian immigrants.
This is precisely why we cannot allow these regressive and racist restrictions on reproductive choice to stand; their very continued existence is based on legislated anti-Asian racism that have been passed primarily to limit the reproductive freedom of all women.
Act Now! Right now, NAPAWF has joined forces with NAACP to file a lawsuit challenging Arizona’s sex-selective abortion ban. Sign up for NAPAWF’s newsletter to find out how you can get involved, and of course, donations never hurt!
Read More: Mother Jones – A New Study Demolishes the Racist Myths Behind Sex-Selective Abortion Bans
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