Asian-American Advocacy Against Bans on Sex-Selective Abortions

Between 2009 and 2013, over 60 bills banning sex-selective abortions— abortions aimed to control the sex of one’s child— were introduced at state and federal levels. These bills, thinly veiled in ironically re-appropriated gender equality terms, called out specific AAPI ethnic groups for “eliminating” “tens of thousands of unborn girls” for being “considered by some to be the wrong sex” (Mosher, 2011). Proponents of these bills argue that Chinese-American, Indian-American, and Korean-Americans have brought male-preferred sex-selection practices “consistent with discriminatory practices common to their country of origin, or the country to which they trace their ancestry” (Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2013) and that evidence of such practices can be seen in current demographic statistics.

“While it is difficult to say with any exactitude how many sex-selection abortions take place in the U.S. each year, the number is not trivial. . . . [W]e are talking about communities consisting of 3.9 million Chinese Americans, 2.8 million . . . Asian Indians, [and] 1.6 million Korean Americans[.] [T]he highly skewed sex ratios found in census surveys suggest among these groups alone, that tens of thousands of unborn girls have been eliminated, for no other reason than they are considered by some to be the wrong sex.”

Testimony of Steven W. Mosher, President of the Population Research Institute, at a hearing before the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Committee on the Judiciary

Advocates against these bills—the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, University of Chicago’s International Human Rights Clinic, and University of California, San Francisco’s Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health—have already conducted original research and analyzed existing data to refute the claims made for these bills. (The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) is the sole community organizing and policy advocacy group for AAPI women and girls on the national level.) Building off of their research and arguments, I seek to gain a deeper understanding of the origins and implications of arguments for sex-selective abortion bans.

Representations of certain AAPI communities in the arguments for bans on sex-selective abortions further marginalize these populations. And while the anti-choice advocates point solely to the Chinese-American, Indian-American, and Korean-American communities as the perpetrators, it appears that those organizing against these movements, like NAPAWF, recognize the implications for AAPI women as a whole. Given the homogenizing ways in which this population is viewed by these policy makers and the healthcare professionals who implement such policies, groups like NAPAWF realize that the heightened policing of women’s bodies applies not only to Chinese-American, Indian-American, and Korean-American women, but AAPI women as a whole. In this way, Lowe’s concept of ‘strategic essentialism’ becomes both beneficial and appropriate to their activism efforts.

“Evidence strongly suggests that some Americans are exercising sex-selection abortion practices within the United States consistent with discriminatory practices common to their country of origin, or the country to which they trace their ancestry.”

Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) of 2013

Furthermore, anti-choicers who argue for sex-selective abortion bans perpetuate the image of calculating Asian/American parents who view their children as commodities defined by their potential social and economic capital, and little else. Such representations of Asian/American parents can also be seen in the ‘commodification’ of South Korean adoptees as the largest source of adoptees to Europe and the United States (First Person Plural) and of one-dimensional ‘Tiger Mothers’ who’s foci lie solely in their children’s academic and professional accomplishments.

NAPAWF not only challenges detrimental representations of AAPI communities, but also provide AAPI representation on an issue that is most visibly championed by white feminists. Just as AAPI women’s sexual activity may be viewed as a form of betrayal to their racial identities, so may NAPAWF’s advocacy efforts on a topic commonly championed by white feminists as well (Bow). However, NAPAWF successfully navigates this issue by addressing the issue of abortion care rights with perspectives that take ethnicity and citizenship into account. As we talked about in our discussion of abortion in Saving Face, abortion access and rights are significant issues for AAPI women. More specifically, the ‘model minority’ myth, which assumes all Asian Americans to have the economic resources to support children, erases the needs of poor AAPI women who are more heavily impacted by abortion access and rights.

These bans not only impact AAPI representation, but AAPI individuals and bodies as well. AAPI women already face huge barriers to quality reproductive and abortion care including language barriers, cultural barriers and high rates of uninsurance. As sex-selective abortion bans are regulated through fines for healthcare professionals who fail to report violations, these laws will further exacerbate these issues by pressuring healthcare professionals to scrutinize the reproductive health and health choices of AAPI women (Replacing Myths with Facts). With pregnancy and pregnant women as sites for both biological and cultural reproduction, sex-selective abortion bans serve as an excuse to exercise biopolitical power over bodies and cultures of these ‘backwards,’ ‘oriental’ women.


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