The Corner

Sex-Selective Abortions Come Home

“There is such a thing as too many daughters, but not too many sons,” Dr. Sunita Puri was told by the Asian-Indian women she was interviewing. 

The physician, who practices in the Bay Area, wanted to find out why so many immigrant Indian women in the United States were so eager to find out the sex of their unborn children, and why so many of them choose abortion when they found out they were carrying a girl.

What she discovered over the course of 65 interviews conducted over several years profoundly shocked her. Fully 89 percent of the women carrying girls opted for an abortion, and nearly half had previously aborted girls.

Puri’s report, published in Social Science and Medicine this last April, makes for grim reading. Women told Puri of their guilt over their sex-selection abortions, how they felt that they were unable to “save” their daughters. Even the women who turned out to be carrying boys this time around could not shake their remorse over having earlier aborted daughters in this deadly game of reproductive roulette. 

They also made clear that they were not free actors when it came to reproductive “choice.” Many, when it was learned that they were carrying girls, became the victims of family violence. Some — in an effort to make them miscarry — had been slapped and shoved around by angry husbands and in-laws, or even kicked in the stomach. Others were denied food, water, and rest in order to coerce them into aborting their unwanted girl babies.

Whether such brutality is common is an open question. That sex-selective abortion is widely practiced among certain Asian-American communities is not. 

Jason Abrevaya of the University of Texas analyzed U.S. birth data and found unusually high boy-birth percentages after 1980 among later children (most notably third and fourth children) born to Chinese and Asian-Indian mothers. Moreover, using maternally linked data from California, he found that Asian-Indian mothers are significantly more likely both to have a terminated pregnancy and to give birth to a son when they have previously only given birth to girls.

Columbia University economists Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund also found clear evidence of sex-selective abortions in what they called “son-biased sex ratios,” that is, a higher ratio of boys to girls than would occur in nature. Looking at the sex ratio at birth among U.S.-born children of Chinese, Korean, and Asian-Indian parents, they found that first-borns showed normal sex ratios at birth. But if the first child was a girl, the sex ratio jumped to 117, and if the first two children were girls, then the sex ratio jumped to 151. That is to say, for every 151 boys, there were only 100 hundred surviving girls. The rest had been eliminated.

This is not just misogyny; it is misogyny that kills.

Racism kills as well, to judge from the fact that the abortion rate among blacks is about five times higher than the American average. Blacks are only 12 percent of the population but have 37 percent of the abortions. This suggests that their abortions, too, are more than just a matter of personal choice.

We have been told by the self-described “pro-choice” movement that women who go in for abortions do so because they (not their husbands, in-laws, or kinship group) have decided not to continue their pregnancies. If this turns out not to be true, and others bend you to their prejudices where gender and race are concerned, then the pro-choice argument evaporates.

What we are then left with is discrimination, pure and blatant, on the basis of sex and race. If the child is male or white, it will likely live. If the child is female or black, it may die.   

The obvious solution, according to Arizona congressman Trent Franks (Ariz.) is to ban sex- and race-selective abortion. This week he introduced a bill, called the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, or PreNDA for short, to do just that. 

The bill declares that an abortion done for reasons of sex or race selection is a violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and prohibits doctors from carrying out such abortions. Those who coerce women into a sex- or race-based abortion can be sued by their victims, and organizations that solicit or accept funds to perform such abortions will be in violation of the law.

This reasonable effort to reign in discriminatory abortions has been mischaracterized by the National Organization of Women as an “attempt to restrict healthcare for women of color.”

What it is really about is allowing Indian, Chinese, Korean, and other women the freedom to have the babies of their choosing. Isn’t that what “reproductive choice” is supposed to be all about?

— Steven W. Mosher is the president of the Population Research Institute and the author of Population Control: Real Costs and Illusory Benefits.

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