South Dakota: “We need to ban sex-based abortions because of Asians.”

south dakota legislature

We’re a mere two months into 2014, and the year is already shaping up to break records on Republican irrationality. In South Dakota last week, state lawmakers passed a bill 60-10 that would ban sex-based abortion. Why, you might ask?

Because, say bill supporters, the state has a growing population of Asians, and Asians are all about aborting girl babies.

Let’s follow this disturbing trail that South Dakota lawmakers call logic, shall we?

From MotherJones:

Speaking in favor of the bill, Stace Nelson, a Republican state representative running for the US Senate, hearkened back to his time living in Asia as a Marine. “Many of you know I spent 18 years in Asia,” Nelson said. “And sadly, I can tell you that the rest of the world does not value the lives of women as much as I value the lives of my daughters.”

Don Haggar, another Republican state representative, warned that the values Nelson observed in Asia had already taken root in South Dakota. “Let me tell you, our population in South Dakota is a lot more diverse than it ever was,” Haggar said. “There are cultures that look at a sex-selection abortion as being culturally okay. And I will suggest to you that we are embracing individuals from some of those cultures in this country, or in this state. And I think that’s a good thing that we invite them to come, but I think it’s also important that we send a message that this is a state that values life, regardless of its sex.”

Citing experience gained from their travels overseas, Republican lawmakers say that Asians culturally prefer male children over female children. They then cited two studies that supposedly argue that the likelihood of East Asian families having a male child increases after having two girls, which the authors argue of at least one of these studies suggest may be evidence of pre-natal sex-selection. Then, they cite the US Census showing that South Dakota has a growing Asian population constituting 1.1% of the state in 2012.

Finally, in their logical piece de resistance: they argue that all women seeking an abortion in South Dakota last year who marked “Other” were Asian, and thus were seeking an abortion based on the sex of the fetus.

Therefore, according to South Dakota lawmakers, up to 24 abortions performed in the state last year were examples of Asian women murdering their female babies in utero, and this rampant slaughter must be stopped! Think of the children!

So, obviously there are a few things wrong with this line of thinking. First of all, while sex-based abortion and other forms of post-natal rejection of female babies can be observed in places like China, it’s unclear even in these Asian countries exactly what practices contribute to the clear skewing of the adult population towards the male gender, and further how much those situations are exacerbated by restrictive reproductive policies and economic depression. Certainly, recent announcements of the relaxation of the One Child Policy due in part to its impact on the reduced birth of female children in China are predicted to significantly improve survival for female offspring, evidence that Chinese mothers are not culturally predisposed towards aborting female fetuses. Thus, while it’s clear that families in some Asian cultures prioritize care for male children over females and that this can reduce survival for girls when families have reduced access to economic resources due to poverty or politics , it’s faulty to assume that skewed gender ratios in Asian countries are direct evidence of uncontrolled sex-based abortion.

Nonetheless, Republican lawmakers then used two studies to suggest that Asian Americans — not under restrictive reproductive policies like the One Child Policy — are still aborting girl babies. There’s a couple major problems with these studies. First, while both studies cite increased likelihood for male children after Asian families give birth to girls, neither study explicitly cite sex-based abortion as the cause for these observed ratios.

Secondly, and more importantly, both studies use Census data, but neither address the problem of small sample size in their analysis. Consider the following figure, which is reproduced from the Almond and Edlund study from 2008, and which looked at the entire US population.

This is, by the way, the ONLY figure in this paper. From Almond and Edlund, 2008, published in PNAS.
This is, by the way, the ONLY figure in this paper. From Almond and Edlund, 2008, published in PNAS.

Those error bars are huge. Why? Because your sample size here is tiny (and also skewed by the fact that according to their own numbers, Asian families are less likely than White families to have three or more children). Almond and Edlund are comparing their findings in samples smaller than 350 families, against their White-only control, where each sample numbers in the thousands. That’s why the error bars are nice and tight in the first graph, and ginormous in the second one. And, any good demographer knows that small sample sizes produces artifacts in the data. What’s shocking to me is that PNAS — a generally reputable journal — published this study, at all.

As for the second study (which is behind a paywall), I suspect that the sample size issues are more extreme. Why? Because in the second study, the author limited himself only to Census data from the state of California.

Fundamentally, there is zero evidence that sex-based abortions are resulting in the “loss of female children” in South Dakota, necessitating a state-wide ban on the practice. There is further zero evidence that even if sex-based abortions are happening in South Dakota, that this is due to the state’s growing Asian population.

Really, this is nothing more than another ploy by South Dakota Republicans to restrict reproductive choice for women while invoking long-standing, and highly racist, fears of the Yellow Peril.

A 19th century cartoon depicts the many reasons to fear the Yellow Peril, including "immorality".
A 19th century cartoon depicts the many reasons to fear the Yellow Peril, including “immorality”.

The spectre of the sexually promiscuous, deviant Asian woman has haunted Asian and Asian American immigrants since we first stepped foot in this country: remember that some of the earliest anti-Asian legislations sought to limit entry of Asian women into the United States on the grounds that we were insatiable prostitutes intent on morally corrupting decent White men. In 1870 — 12 years before the 1882 federal Chinese Exclusion Act — “Mongolian” women were prohibited from entry into the country  by a California statute unless they could prove they were of “good moral character”.

And here we are, nearly 150 years later, and lawmakers are still invoking racist, sexist anti-Asian stereotypes of Asian women to protect good and upstanding White Americans from the barbaric moral deviancy of Asia. Disgusting.

Act Now! Frankly, I’m not entirely sure how to stop South Dakota Republicans from being racist and sexist — they’ve been excelling in this regard without our help — but at its core, this legislation is yet another blatant attack on reproductive choice. Here’s a petition asking South Dakota not to pass this bill, HR 1162.

As a woman, as an Asian American woman, or just as someone who believes that Republicans have no business using racism and sexism to justify their restrictive policies, join me in committing to support and protect reproductive choice for all women.


Also, the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) is a great organization dedicated to defending and promoting Asian American women’s issues, and that has launched a campaign to stop HR 1162 in South Dakota: you should donate to it.

Update: Grace Hwang Lynch (@HapaMamaGrace) posts over at BlogHer on this ridiculousness!

Update II: NAPAWF has started a twitter conversation using the hashtag #SDRacism!

Update III: For those looking for the timeline of this legislation, as well as the record of those in the State House who voted in favour of it, please check out this page over at the South Dakota State Legislature website. HR1162 passed the House with bipartisan support constituting nearly 90% of state representatives, and is scheduled for a Senate hearing on March 3rd. I will keep you posted with details on this legislation.

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