South Dakota recently became the 8th state to make it illegal to abort a fetus because of its sex, and set penalties including jail time and fines for doctors who knowingly provided such abortions. Sex-selective abortion is an phenomenon that has dramatically reshaped the sex balance of several Asian countries, most significantly China and India, where the natural males born per 100 females birth ratio of approximately 105 (it usually never naturally exceeds 106 in large populations) has been distorted to around 120, a breathtaking number indicative of millions of missing baby girls.
Reproductive rights advocates dispute the idea that it is a live issue here in the United States, however. Tara Culp-Ressler of ThinkProgress writes,
While female infanticide is an issue in some parts of the world, there’s absolutely no evidence that the Asian American or Pacific Islander (AAPI) individuals who live here in the U.S. are having abortions based on gender. [emphasis added] There is no epidemic of sex-selective abortion among the AAPI community, and passing legislation to “fix” this nonexistent issue simply ends up damaging women of color. Ultimately, these laws scrutinize Asian American women based solely on their race.
Last month, Elizabeth Nolan-Brown at Reason similarly wrote, “Despite having absolutely zero evidence that sex-selective abortions are a problem in South Dakota, state legislators are trying to pass a bill banning such procedures.” Eesha Pandit then penned at RH Reality Check, “Let’s return again to the facts: the purported problem of Asian Americans and sex-selection is not borne out by data,” and “sex-selective abortions are not an actual phenomenon here in the United States.”
Unfortunately (it is truly unfortunate), there is in fact credible evidence that the well-documented “Global War on Baby Girls” includes a small but active front here in the United States.
Culp-Russler and Pandit, among many others participating in this debate from the pro-choice side, rely on the reproductive health-focused Guttmacher Institute’s policy review titled “A Problem-and-Solution Mismatch: Son Preference and Sex-Selective Abortion Bans”. That very document closes its opening paragraph with the following:
Sex-selective abortion is widespread in certain countries, especially those in East and South Asia, where an inordinately high social value is placed on having male over female children. There is some evidence—although limited and inconclusive—to suggest that the practice may also occur among Asian communities in the United States. (emphasis added)
The policy review paper acknowledges the evidence, but calls it limited and inconclusive. Yet the two leading studies cited by Guttmacher policy review author Sneha Barot, and subsequently most of the authors relying on her paper, are neither especially limited nor inconclusive. Drawing on U.S. Census data and published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, study authors Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund of Columbia University open their discussion, “We document son-biased sex ratios at higher parities in a contemporary Western society. We interpret the found deviation in favor of sons to be evidence of sex selection, most likely at the prenatal stage.”
Now, as the second study‘s author, Jason Abrevaya, explains in American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, prenatal sex selection could conceivably be a result of using more advanced reproductive technologies, like IVF or sperm sorting. In practice, the high expense and rarity of such procedures means that almost all prenatal sex selection most likely takes place by abortion. He concludes his study, “This study has offered evidence consistent with gender selection at later births within the United States.” He continues,
The use of an extensive set of control variables in the boy-birth regression analyses rules out any simple biological explanations for the observed irregularities in boy-birth percentages. As such, gender selection stands out as the most logical explanation of the observed irregularities. This conclusion is further supported by the observed timing of the irregularities, concurrent with the increased availability of ultrasound and amniocentesis technologies. The third-birth and fourth-birth trends among Chinese and Indian mothers … match closely with the corresponding trends seen in China and India.
Causal claims are very difficult to make in social science, but these studies, drawing on relatively large samples and a variety of data sources, are very convincing. Contra Culp-Ressler, Pandit, et al., there is significant evidence that sex-selective abortions are taking place in the United States, at the very least in parts of the Asian American community. So far, similar trends have not been found in the U.S. white population, but that does not mean individual white families are not having abortions on the basis of sex. Importantly, the very Asian American communities now showing disfigured sex ratios at birth were well within normal a generation ago.
In their drive to dismiss sex-selective abortion bans as figments of the racist, misogynistic imaginations of pro-life die-hards, these writers have risked lulling their readers into a false sense of complacency about a real and serious source of violence against women here in our own country. What they could be trying to convey, however, is that sex-selective abortion is a relatively limited problem in terms of gross numbers, and not deserving of as much attention as these eight states are giving it.
Abrevaya’s study found evidence consistent with over 2,000 “missing” American girls from 1991 to 2004. According to the FBI, there were approximately 1,214,462 violent crimes in the United States in 2012 alone, including 14,827 murders and 84,376 forcible rapes. Perhaps these writers are trying to say that focusing on a phenomenon so far only found in very small populations in the U.S. is an unwise use of time, and risks perpetuating harm by stigmatizing innocent members of that population. Redden mentions that the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum “has long argued that that sex-selective abortion bans perpetuate negative stereotypes about Asian American women.” Also factoring in, as Pandit explains, ”In the United States, access to reproductive rights has been anchored in the notion of absolute choice. Our political argument is tied to the right to privacy and the belief that a woman’s body is her own and her choice is paramount.”
But what happens when some women turn that choice against their own sex? A commitment to “absolute choice” is ill-equipped to protect girls-to-be-born against the peculiar mix of cultural factors that have produced sex-selective abortion. One reason they should resist the above arguments for dismissing sex-selective abortion concerns is that, even at a very small scale, the fact that this practice is measurably present in the United States at all is very distressing.
As Barot’s Guttmacher report says, “Particularly in India and China, a deep-seated preference for having sons over daughters is due to a variety of factors that continue to make males more socially and economically valuable than females.” Those countries have long-standing institutions that reward having sons and effectively punish having daughters, and the social norms to go along with them. Moreover, China’s draconian one child policy dramatically raises the stakes of each successive pregnancy. One would hope, however, that once in the United States, where women enjoy dramatically higher status and none of those institutional pressures are present, the cultural pressures driving sex-selective abortions would dissipate, or at least fade. Instead, the practice has been rising, and citizenship (one possible measure of assimilation) did not have any significant relationship with the apparent rate of sex-selective abortion in Almond and Edlund’s study.
Many reproductive rights advocates will be rightly concerned by this practice, but resist specific legal bans on the use of abortions for the purpose of sex selection, both because they fear it being a slippery slope to wider abortion bans (as many of the bans’ supporters in turn hope it will be), and because they do not believe legal bans to be particularly effective or enforceable. There is solid evidence to support the latter point. After all, it is not hard for a woman to obtain a sex determination at one facility, and an abortion at another. And China itself criminalized sex-selective abortions in 2005, and banned prenatal sex determination itself in 1989, but its sex ratios have only continued to skew. That said, along with the massive economic growth of China’s past decades, “Between the 1982 census and the 2005 mini-census, China’s reported adult (15 and older) female illiteracy rate dropped from 25 percent to 4 percent, and mean years of schooling for Chinese women rose by nearly 50 percent over roughly that same period, from 5.4 to 8.0.” So while legal prohibition is not by itself not sufficient to curb prenatal sex selection, neither is economic growth, nor female education.
Legal bans on sex-selective abortion should not be abandoned (or opposed) for failing to address the whole issue. The Guttmacher report said that “The most authoritative and instructive roadmap on how to understand and counter the problems of sex selection is a statement released last year by five UN agencies,” which itself reads,
Experience also indicates that broad, integrated and systematic approaches need to be taken if efforts to eliminate son preference are to succeed…[and] to ensure that the social norms and structural issues underlying gender discrimination are addressed. Within this framework, legal action is an important and necessary element but is not sufficient on its own. (emphasis added)
That legal action alone will not be enough to curb sex-selective abortion is something all sides should be able to agree on. AEI demographer and political economist Nicholas Eberstadt explored these limitations in his sweeping 2011 New Atlantis article, “The Global War Against Baby Girls.” Where he concluded, though, was with the one glimmer of hope in the thoroughly depressing sex-selective abortion story: South Korea.
South Korea once had one of the worst sex ratios at birth of any non-Chinese country, hitting 116 in the mid-1990s. Then, in a phenomenon of unclear causation (as Eberstadt says, success has many fathers), their demographic plight began to reverse. The UN attributes the reversal to exploding economic growth, but as we’ve seen with China, that isn’t enough by itself. Instead, Eberstadt writes,
Available evidence, however, seems to suggest that South Korea’s SRB [sex ratio at birth] reversal was influenced less by government policy than by civil society: more specifically, by the spontaneous and largely uncoordinated congealing of a mass movement for honoring, protecting, and prizing daughters.
Both sides of the abortion debate can become so consumed with their own positioning in absolutist ideological wars that they overlook genuine opportunities to forge common ground in defending our daughters. Neither “the notion of absolute choice” nor the desire to use this issue as cheap leverage against feminists is equipped to mount the cultural defense these girls require. Both sides, then, face a test of seriousness.
Will they continue to score points among their own true believers? Or will they go out, however uncomfortably, and bend their political strategies to protect the vulnerable?