If you don’t know the ins and outs of reproductive justice, you may be surprised to find out that the second most proposed ban on abortion has racist undertones and questionable legal enforceability. Often called “sex-selective abortion bans,” these prohibitions have passed in eight states, and 21 have been introduced in states and Congress since 2009.
Last week, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution opposing sex-selective abortion bans on the basis that they promote discrimination against and stereotypes of Asian and Pacific Islander women. California State Assemblywoman Shannon Grove (R) had attempted to get a ban on sex-selective abortions passed in May but the measure failed.
Shivana Jorawar, reproductive justice program director for the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), says that sex-selective abortions are an international issue. “There’s a very real problem of son preference in [countries including] India and China [that] can result in sex selection,” she explains. “In those countries opportunities for education or economic security are very limited, and property is passed down through male children. All of these things create a very strong preference for sons.”
Evidence that similar practices exist in the United States is shaky. A report released by NAPAWF in June spells it out:
“The main empirical support for the view that [Asian-Americans] are obtaining sex-selective abortions based on son preference in the United States is from a study by economists Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund published in 2008. That study, using United States census data from 2000, found that when foreign-born Chinese, Indians and Koreans have two girls, the sex ratios at the third birth in those families is skewed towards boys. However, in analyzing more recent data from the 2007 to 2011 American Community Survey (ACS), we found that the sex ratios at birth of foreign-born Chinese, Indians and Koreans are not male-biased when all their births are taken into account. In fact, foreign-born Chinese, Indians and Koreans have proportionally more girls than white Americans.”
Along with the scant proof that sex-selective abortion is occurring in the U.S. is the question of enforcement. While each of the bans vary, most threaten to penalize providers who know that their patients are sex-selecting and perform the procedure anyway. So, theoretically, one would have to prove that a) a woman wanted an abortion because of the sex of the fetus, b) that the doctor knew of this intent, and c) that the doctor performed the procedure anyway. That’s a lot of difficult-to-ascertain elements in one scenario. “It should come as no surprise [that] we’ve never seen a prosecution under these laws,” says Alexa Kolbi-Molinas, staff attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project.
While both Kolbi-Molinas and Jorawar say they haven’t heard of anyone who has been denied an abortion based on these laws, Jorawar says she’s heard a handful of racially charged anecdotes from API women in Pennsylvania, one of the eight states with a ban in place. “We have been hearing anecdotal stories of women being denied the ability to see their ultrasounds,” says Jorawar. “[The women are told], ‘We’re not able to let you know if you’re having a girl or a boy,’ accompanied by a lecture about how in this country we value girls and boys equally.”
David Chiu (D), the board supervisor who authored the San Francisco resolution, learned about the issue from NAPAWF. Jorawar says that the group approached Chiu earlier this year because they wanted to take a more proactive stand against sex-selective abortion measures. While the city’s resolution does not prevent such a ban from being passed in the state of California, Chiu says he hopes it will raise awareness. “I believed that San Francisco ought to take a stand against the latest anti-choice policies [that are] based on racial stereotypes,” he says of why he pushed the resolution. “I’m proud that, with a unanimous vote by our Board of Supervisors, San Francisco became the first jurisdiction in the country to oppose these bans. We hope that other governments follow suit before [a] ban comes to your town.”