The racist Right is at it again, or so we’re meant to believe. This time, Asian Americans are in the crosshairs, as pro-lifers lean on vicious stereotypes in an effort to bolster their assault on reproductive choice.
That at any rate is the argument put forward by David Chiu, the San Francisco supervisor whose resolution to oppose bans on sex-selective abortion passed on Tuesday. Chiu contends there is absolutely no evidence that sex-selective abortion is a problem in the United States, and that arguments to the contrary are grounded in racial stereotypes. HuffPo’s Lydia O’Connor, Slate’s Emily Bazelon, Mother Jones’ Molly Redden, and Reason’s Emily Nolan Brown have joined in the effort to spread the word. Sex selective abortion isn’t a problem in the United States! It’s all just a racist ploy.
There’s just one problem with this argument. Sex-selective abortion does happen here, and the evidence has been bolstered by, ironically, the very study Chiu and others have cited as their primary source of data. Another day, another reminder that maybe somebody (at least an intern?) should actually read the study before we all get on our high horses about it.
First, Some Background
Let’s back up, for those who are unfamiliar with this controversy. Sex-selective abortion means killing your unborn child because he or (more commonly) she is not the sex you prefer. This has been widespread in China through the decades of the one-child policy and, as a result, the 2010 Chinese census revealed that men outnumber women in China by 34 million. That’s a huge social problem. It’s also a terrible tragedy, when you consider that it points to millions of babies who were killed or abandoned by their parents simply because they were girls.
China isn’t the only country where this happens. In India and Singapore, sex-selective abortion is also regularly used to express a preference for sons over daughters. Great Britain has only recently admitted it needs to address this problem, especially among its Asian population. Women say they are shamed for having too many daughters, and feel pressure from extended family to abort and save resources for a much-desired son.
The Brits haven’t come up with a satisfactory solution, but at least they’re thinking about it. Here in the United States, we’re still struggling through the denial phase. The evidence is already before us that sex-selective abortion does happen here. Sunita Puri published a study in 2011 in which she interviewed 65 Indian immigrant women, all of whom had pursued fetal sex selection. Her study revealed that the women, like so many mothers abroad, had been shamed and sometimes abused for conceiving too many girls, and that nearly half of them had aborted daughters in the past. Among those study participants who were carrying girls, 89 percent chose to abort.
Those are some pretty sobering numbers, but then again, 65 women make for a small sample. Demographic data shows us the big picture, and it does bear out Puri’s claims, provided you know where to look. This is what Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund found in their 2008 study of birth ratios among American-born offspring of foreign-born Chinese, Korean, and Indian parents. First-born Asian children, Almond and Edlund found, showed normal sex ratios, with about 106 girls for every 100 boys. When the firstborn child was a daughter, sex ratios for second births were skewed a bit towards boys.
But the really significant finding concerned third births in families who already had two daughters. Among these children, there were 151 boys for every 100 girls. Almond and Edlund drew the obvious conclusion: when expecting for the third time, a significant number of Asian parents preferred an abortion to a third daughter.
Killed for the Crime of Being Female
These numbers have been cited many times by pro-life activists in their push to ban sex-selective abortion, which is now illegal in eight states. Everyone recognizes that enforcement is difficult in a country that mostly embraces abortion on demand. Nevertheless, a majority of Americans are rightly offended by the notion that the unborn can legally be killed simply for the crime of being girls. This has been a fairly successful line of argument for pro-lifers, which predictably has NARAL supporters scrambling for an adequate response. Pro-abortion feminists find themselves in an uncomfortable position when backing up the right of patriarchal cultures to reject girls.
Enter this study, published this year out of the University of Chicago’s International Human Rights Clinic. Widely hailed as the new, definitive word on sex-selective abortion, its data sets are larger and more recent than those used by Almond and Eklund. It also wears its political agenda on its sleeve, presenting a list of “myths” (used by the pro-life movement to justify laws against sex-selective abortion) and replacing them with “facts” (meant to show that such laws are unnecessary).
The presentation builds to “Myth #6” (“The primary motivation behind laws banning sex-selective abortion in the United States is to prevent gender-based discrimination”) which is replaced by “Fact #6” (“Restricting access to abortion is the primary motivation for sex-selective abortion bans.”) It’s refreshing they are so obvious about their allegiances. Why muddy the waters with pretensions to academic detachment when abortion rights are on the line?
Let’s cut to the chase, though, and ask what is obviously the most important question: is sex-selective abortion happening in the United States? If not, that lends at least some support to the claims of Chiu and others that pro-lifers are scare-mongering and leaning on inapplicable racial stereotypes. Has this new study really shown that Almond and Eklund’s conclusions were wrong or out of date? You’d certainly think so to read the many write-ups from HuffPo, Slate, Mother Jones, or Reason.
Study Confirms Pro-Life Argument
For the skeptical, though, I advise pulling up the study yourself and flashing ahead to page 16, where the authors admit: “Our study of pooled ACS data confirms Almond and Edlund’s study with regard to the third births of foreign-born Chinese, Indian and Korean families that have already given birth to two girls.” Wait, what? This wonderful, up-to-date study confirms the very point that was most critical to the pro-life argument all along? So… then… what are all these pro-choice advocates so excited about?
It’s possible they just didn’t read the study closely. And, in fairness, the authors pulled a bit of a fast one on their journalistic admirers by burying the single most important piece of information in a forest of far-less-relevant facts, graphs, and meanderings about methodology. Amazingly, they don’t even bother to tell us what sex ratio they found for the single most critical, two-daughter case. Did they figure people wouldn’t be interested in that niggling little number? Or do they just prefer to hide unwelcome data in plain sight by shining a bright spotlight on those statistics that are friendlier to their political agenda? It’s a neat little bit of misdirection. Move over, David Copperfield.
Now, in a way, I can sympathize. It’s got to be frustrating when you bring together a lot of important-sounding organizations to do a big, splashy study, and it ends up confirming the piece of data that most sticks in your craw. But now that we’ve descended to throwing around accusations of racism, I think the truth should be spoken. Asian-born American parents with two daughters are significantly more likely to have a son for their third child. Combined with Puri’s qualitative study, and ample data confirming the use of sex-selective abortion in some Asian cultures, that constitutes strong evidence that it also happens here in the United States. My compliments to the University of Chicago for confirming this with their new, comprehensive study.
Your Move, Abortion-Lovers
It’s up to the pro-choice movement where they want to take the argument from here. They could, with Allison Benedikt, declare it doesn’t matter and it’s parents’ business if they want to kill their unborn daughters. They could admit that sex-selective abortion is happening and is tragic, but focus their attention on (admittedly difficult) challenges of enforcement. (China has long had laws against sex-selective abortion. We can see how that’s worked out.)
Or, they could take refuge in that small bit of cover offered by sperm sorting and other non-abortive methods of sex-selection. Bazelon gestures towards this latter strategy when she claims that sex ratios for Asian babies are skewed only at conception and not at birth. Following her links, I got to this study, which doesn’t at all back up her statement (that woman seriously needs more interns), but does at least consider the possibility that other factors besides abortion might play some role in explaining the suspicious sex ratios. The author, Jason Abreyava, still points to sex-selective abortion as “the most logical” primary explanation for the data. But, based on demographic data alone, we can’t absolutely prove that Asian-born parents are aborting their daughters out of a preference for sons. It just seems overwhelmingly likely.
America is a big country and the relevant sub-cultures are fairly small. So pro-choicers could bite the bullet and suggest that even if sex-selective abortion happens and is sort of distasteful, maybe a few hundred or thousand aborted daughters either way just aren’t that big of a deal? Hey, I’m just laying out your options, if you happen to be a pro-choice feminist.
In any case, what we shouldn’t permit is further deception about what the data is really saying. Even less should we permit disingenuous attempts to dismiss the struggle against femicide as racist or misogynistic. Insofar as non-Asian cultures practice sex-selective abortion (which, sometimes, they do) that is of course equally offensive, and bans on sex-selective abortion apply equally to all ethnic groups, and also to parents who kill unborn sons out of a preference for daughters. But when pro-lifers promote these laws with arguments about Asian cultures and femicide, they’re responding to real evidence that in some Asian cultures, femicide happens.
Pro-lifers aren’t looking to control women. They’re trying to save them, and to make a clear and unambiguous statement that here in the United States, we cherish girls (just like boys!) as full human beings whose lives are worth protecting.