Without question, sex-selective abortion is a serious, widespread problem in some parts of the world—particularly China and India, where international human rights organizations have done significant work exploring the problem and working toward genuine solutions. And there is some anecdotal evidence that women in some immigrant populations in the U.S. have felt that same cultural pressure to favor boys.
In India, a law prohibiting the determination of a fetus’s sex before birth utterly failed to produce any meaningful change in sex ratios. In fact, the ratio among children from birth to age six has actually worsened.
In contrast, South Korea’s broad-based effort to address sex discrimination at its roots has produced impressive results to lower a very unbalanced male-female birth ratio. Officials capitalized on economic changes that increase demand for women in the workforce and improve women’s status in society generally by passing a series of laws expanding to expand their rights.
Further, a 2011 statement signed by the World Health Organization, UNFPA, UNICEF, U.N. Women, and the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights clearly states sex selection “is a symptom of pervasive social, cultural, political and economic injustices against women, and a manifest violation of women’s human rights” and that such injustices must be resolved “without exposing women and children to the risk of death or serious injury through denying them access to needed services – and thus further violating their rights.”
That’s exactly what the so-called Prenatal Non-Discrimination Act would do.
It would cast a cloud of suspicion over the reproductive choices of all Asian American women, who would no doubt face racial profiling at the doctor’s office merely for the act of exercising their constitutionally-protected reproductive rights.
It represents another demeaning intrusion by government on the doctor-patient relationship, forcing doctors to question the motives of their patients seeking to end a pregnancy and erecting another barrier between women and health care services.
And by adding yet another reason by which abortion can be banned, it would further undermine the fundamental protections articulated in scores of constitutional decisions stretching back to Roe v. Wade.
On this point, it’s worth noting the women’s rights track record of Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), who introduced the bill, and many others who support it. They have supported all manner of other legislation hostile to reproductive rights, including bans on insurance coverage for abortion services, attempts to defund Planned Parenthood and reinstate the Global Gag Rule, and a bill disingenuously titled the “Protect Life Act” that would in reality allow women to be left to die emergency rooms if their attending physicians refuse on conscience grounds to provide life-saving pregnancy terminations.
And it’s worth asking what Rep. Franks and his allies have done to attack the root causes of sex discrimination in the U.S. They have, after all, consistently opposed legislation that’s actually aimed at righting very real gender-based wrongs—including the Violence Against Women Act, the Paycheck Fairness Act, the Global Sexual and Reproductive Health Act, and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act.
We should be concerned that the low status of women has made sex-selective abortions prevalent in some parts of the world. But to represent an attempt to undermine women’s rights as a means of promoting them is cynical and manipulative.
Enacting a bill that with great potential to harm so many women’s health and dignity will only exacerbate gender discrimination—the very issue these lawmakers are suddenly pretending to be so concerned about.
Northup is the president and CEO of the Center for Reproductive Rights.