How Racist Sex-Selective Abortion Bans in US Wrongfully Target Asian Americans
Appropriating the gender equality rhetoric, supporters of such bills portray the issue to be about women’s rights.
Sex-selective abortion bans (SSAB) make it illegal for a physician to perform an abortion if they suspect a pregnant person could be seeking one due to a preference for the sex of the foetus.
Reproductive rights advocacy group, Guttmacher Institute says that "numerous abortion restrictions target very specific pregnancy conditions and populations".
Indian and Chinese immigrant communities have become the kill, “Bans on sex-selective abortions place a burden on providers, who are forced to question each person’s reasons for seeking an abortion, and to second-guess and stigmatise Asian American patients and communities in particular,” as per Guttmacher.
A National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum (NAPAWF) fact sheet says that sex-selective abortion bans are based on anti-immigrant sentiments and disproportionately affect women of colour, specifically Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women. NAPAWF is at the forefront of national advocacy around sex and race-based reason abortions bans.
How a Study 'Wrongly Suggested Sex-Selective Abortions Were Widespread Among Asian Americans' & How it Was Debunked
The ‘legal firestorm to ban sex-selective abortions’ was ignited when ‘Son-biased Sex Ratios in the 2000 United States Census’ by Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund was published in 2008 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
By examining the ratio of boys to girls born to Asian Americans, they deduced that Asian Americans choose to abort female foetuses on the same rate as Asians in Asia.
In a 2020 paper (National Law School of India Review) – How Stereotypes About Indians Are Used to Promote Abortion Restrictions in the United States – Sital Kalantry, an associate professor of Law at Seattle University, discusses that legislations outlawing sex-selective abortion were catapulted by the Almond and Edlund article, which "suggests, wrongly that sex-selective abortion was widespread among Asian Americans."
Her study (University of Chicago, 2014) debunks their analysis, "The full picture comes from comparing the second births of Asian Americans with the second births of people living in India. The sex ratio of Indians (in India) at the second birth is far more male-skewed than that of Asian Americans. In India, a significant amount of sex selection occurs at the second birth when there is one prior girl child. However, sex selection in the US is rarer at the second birth in the three Asian American communities (foreign-born Chinese, Indian and Koreans Americans)."
An expert in international human rights, comparative law and feminist legal theory, Kalantry states that comparisons Almond and Edlund make from Asian American sex-ratios to corresponding ones in China and Korea are "inaccurate."
She adds, "By failing to look at the overall number of boys and girls born to foreign-born Asian-American communities, prior researchers on this topic missed the larger picture – sex-ratios in Asian American communities are not male-biased."
'Biased Preferences Are Context-Based, They Disappear in a Generation'
Further, Kalantry questions the sample size of the controversial study. "They obtained this data from the publicly-released sample of the 2000 US Census, which is only 5 percent of the overall census data," she says.
She told The Quint, "The study finds a little deviance in the second child, even more so in the third, but that doesn’t mean much as the Indian American population was much smaller then, and it has changed over time. This is now old data."
In 2014, Kalantry worked with an interdisciplinary team to analyse sex ratios (2008 to 2012 of US Census data) and found what had not previously been noted: "Unlike Almond and Edlund’s study, we found that, as per more recent data, the sex ratio of the third child of Chinese, Korean, and Indian parents in the US is female-biased after they have had two boys. This suggests that a very small number of Chinese, Korean, and Indian American families are taking measures to ensure that they have both boy children and girl children in their families."
Dr Kalantry and her co-researchers also explored other parameters to conclude that, "Chinese Americans do not overall have more boys than girls beyond the normal range. On the other hand, people living in China and India have many more boys than girls. It is even more interesting that in the case of Indian Americans, they have more girl-children than boy-children," as per her article.
Researches into the impact of sex-selective abortion bans implemented in states (like Pennsylvania), found that no shift in sex ratios followed. According to Guttmacher Institute data about 90 percent of all abortions take place in the first trimester, before most women are even aware of the sex of the foetus.
Indian American Kalantry spoke to us about qualitative studies she has been part of, including an annual national survey of a thousand households, conducted by the Cornell Survey Research Institute (Cornell SRI).
It found, "Asian Americans do not manifest a greater preference for sons than any other racial group in the US."
60.4 percent of Asian Americans want to have one boy and one girl if they could have only two children, it further found. A quarter of the Asian Americans surveyed stated that they have no preference for the gender composition of their children.
Sital Kalantry strongly believes that it is not necessary to pass a legislation that is detrimental for all women, intending to control a few who may not even have 'sexist' motives, "The scale of sex-selective abortion among Asian Americans was widely exaggerated. Indians who are born in the US show no bias for sex of their child. Preferences are context based, and disappear in a generation. There are different drivers in India to want at least one boy. Those don’t exist here."
Almond & Edmund's Study Used by Anti-Abortion Lawmakers
NAPAWF published a sex-selective abortion ban fact sheet in January 2021 stating, "There is no factual evidence showing that sex-selective abortions are prevalent in the US; in fact, a study completed in 2014 found that the ratio of males to females at birth among Asian Americans is standard when compared to the ratio of all births in the US, and foreign-born Chinese, Indian, and Korean Americans actually have more girls overall than white Americans."
NAPAWF Executive Director Sung Yeon Choimorrow told The Quint at a media event that their survey of AAPI women in partnership with University of Chicago showed that sex ratios in immigrant communities don't reflect those seen in home countries.
Another point is that Almond and Edlund did not prove that the sex-selection was being done using abortions.
“There isn’t much documentation of information or studies on whether sex-selective abortions are being used. There are other ways to do that in the US – sperm sorting, IVF combined with gender sorting of embryos,” says Kalantry.
Guttmacher also mentions, "In the United States, there is limited and inconclusive evidence that immigrants from these (countries in East & South Asia India) areas – or anywhere else – are obtaining sex-selective abortions."
In spite of the racist myths being debunked by various studies in the last two decades, publication of the Almond & Edmund article was enough to provide a narrative to anti-abortion lawmakers that Asians who have immigrated to USA obtain sex-selective abortions because of cultural preferences in their countries of origin, which lead to multiple states outlawing sex-selective abortions.
A NAPAWF report says, “Proponents of sex-selective abortion bans claim that these laws are necessary because Asians who migrate to the US bring backward values with them.” Sex-selective abortion laws introduced before the Almond and Edmund study – for example in Pennsylvania and Illinois – did not point to any specific community or culture, or sex of the foetus.
Bills and prohibitions initiated after the 2008 Almond & Edmund study specifically cite the article claiming that "bans are necessary to prevent widespread discriminatory abortions of female foetuses."
Kalantry’s paper gives examples of mentions of Asian Americans in ‘preambles to bills’ after that. The Prenatal Non Discrimination Act (PRENDA) of 2017, proposed in the US Congress refers to the Almond and Edmund article, and includes words like, "son preference... within... segments of the United States population... tracing their origins to countries where sex-selection abortion is prevalent."
Politicians and elected representatives use similar logic and language in their support of anti-abortion laws.
'Direct Assault on Our Communities'
At a NAPAWF media event – The Impact of a Post-Roe World on Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Women – Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, the first South Asian woman to serve in the US House of Representatives, in reference to her own abortion said that, “As an Asian American woman it is important for me to represent millions of AAPI women who have been in a similar situation as I have.”
Responding to a question by The Quint on sex-selective abortion bans based on erroneous claims originating in Asian culture, Jayapal said, “There are lot of groups who make their own reasons on why abortions should be banned.” The Executive Director of NAPAWF Sung Yeon Choimorrow, meanwhile, said that this issue, “is a direct assault on our communities."
These stereotypes about the AAPI community are dangerous because they perpetrate racial profiling in abortion access. Around 35 percent of pregnancies end in abortions for AAPI women. Seven out of ten of AAPI support legalising abortion.
A Guttmacher report says, “While disguised as a means to eliminate gender discrimination, these laws make abortion less accessible; they do not prohibit other sex selection methods, such as sperm sorting or preimplantation genetic diagnostics.”
Appropriating the rhetoric of gender equality, supporters of sex-selective abortion bans portray the issue to be about women’s rights.
Misled and conflicted to pick between women’s rights and reproductive rights, legislators who believe in freedom of choice, paradoxically, have felt compelled to support sex-selective abortion bans, which have been proposed even in liberal states like New York.
In a 2012 vote in the US House of Representatives, 20 Democrats voted in favour for a federal law prohibiting sex-selective abortion, two of which were committedly pro-choice.
Sital Kalantry’s article says, “Thus, it appears that Democrats, who never voted in favour of abortion restrictions but did vote in favour of restricting sex-selective abortion, have accepted the narrative about Asian Americans put forward by pro-life advocates.”
Leveraging anti-immigrant racism into abortion-access battle, has the AAPI community concerned. This makes Asian American women more vulnerable to the disposition of medical providers. It exposes them to questioning which other Americans might not face in a doctor’s office, interrupting and delaying medical care that they have equal rights to.
The immigrant community that has faced increased hate crimes in a polarised America in the last few years, is now worried about post-Roe – what kind of restrictive reality will unfold in their adopted country, where abortion access is being stifled?
(Savita Patel is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist and producer. She reports on Indian diaspora, India-US ties, geopolitics, technology, public health, and environment. She tweets at @SsavitaPatel.)
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