South Dakota Lawmakers Say Asian Immigrants Are Why Sex-Selective Abortion Ban is Needed

A bill banning sex-selective abortions was passed by the South Dakota House, who say that Asian immigrants are bringing skewed cultural values to the state.

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The South Dakota House passed a bill last Wednesday that would ban sex-selective abortions in the state, which already has stringent restrictions in place. Lawmakers say that the measure, which is on its way the state Senate after a vote of 60 to 10, is necessary due to the state's expanding Asian population, a demographic politicians claim have a higher tendency than other groups to abort their female children. 

As Mother Jones reports, one of the bill’s supporters, Republican state Rep. Stace Nelson, cites the time he spent in Asia when he was a Marine as the basis for his expertise in women’s reproductive health and Asian family relations. Nelson, who is running for U.S. Senate, said, “Many of you know I spent 18 years in Asia. And sadly, I can tell you that the rest of the world does not value the lives of women as much as I value the lives of my daughters.”

Another bill supporter, Republican state Rep. Don Haggar, similarly blamed foreign cultural values as the reason for the bill's necessity.

Let me tell you, our population in South Dakota is a lot more diverse than it ever was. There are cultures that look at a sex-selection abortion as being culturally okay. And I will suggest to you that we are embracing individuals from some of those cultures in this country, or in this state. And I think that's a good thing that we invite them to come, but I think it's also important that we send a message that this is a state that values life, regardless of its sex," Haggard said.

But when it comes to actual evidence of those abortions taking place, the bill's supporters appear empty-handed. Peggy Gibson, a Democratic state representative who voted against the bill, noticed this and said there was not “one iota of evidence that a [sex-selective] abortion has taken place in South Dakota. This bill… is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.” So is there really any justification for the bill, or is it a pre-emptive strike and excuse to put pro-choice groups in an awkward bind?

As Molly Redden points out, Spencer Cody, vice president of South Dakota Right to Life, showed questionable PowerPoint slides to the House judiciary committee as "evidence" supporting the bill and the "up to 24 abortions" a year allegedly taking place. One of the slides read, “Ethnic backgrounds that are known to practice sex selection account for up to 3.9% of all abortions in South Dakota.” That number was obtained by referring to state data showing the 3.9 percent of abortion patients in 2011 that listed their race as “other,” which Cody chose to read as "Asian."
As well as referring to studies that found Asian families tend to have more male children than female children, Cody also claimed that 9,200 South Dakotans, or 1.1 percent of the population, “come from ethnic backgrounds that are known to practice sex selection." According to U.S. Census data, 1.1 percent of South Dakotans are from an Asian ethnic background, which explains Cody's use of that figure.
But Cody told Mother Jones he is “confident” that Americans of many backgrounds, not just Asian, practice sex-selective abortion. He also said that the group doesn’t have any hard data illustrating, “‘This number of sex-selection abortions are taking place in South Dakota.”’

If the bill is signed into law, South Dakota would join seven other states, including Arizona, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma, that already have sex-selective abortion bans in place. Under the South Dakota bill, physicians would be required to ask women if they are getting an abortion based of the sex of the fetus, and would have to refuse to perform the procedure if the woman said yes. If they go ahead with the abortion, physicians would risk prison and fines.

But while South Dakota’s tenuous cobbling together of statistics and and perceived problem hasn't uncovered any actual evidence, the story is different in the United Kingdom. A recent investigation by The Independent newspaper found evidence of sex-selective abortions taking place in some of the country’s ethnic communities. And as The Telegraph reports, the practice has led to between 1,400 to 4,700 fewer females in national census records in England and Wales.

During the investigation, physicians in British clinics were also secretly filmed agreeing to perform sex-based abortions, a nightmare scenario for supporters of the South Dakota's bill.

Analysis of U.K. census data found that families with an eldest daughter had increased chances of a second child being male, suggesting an unnatural gender balance. But while that could also be explained by the practice of continuing to have children until a boy is born, experts at London’s Imperial College say that sex-selective abortions have to account for at least some of the numbers from families of mothers born in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Bangladesh, The Telegraph reports.  

The sex-selective abortion debate in the U.S. last reached a national level in 2012, when Congress debated, and rejected, legislation that would ban the practice. Pro-choice groups called it a “sneak attack” on abortion access that could deter both doctors from performing them and patients from seeking them. As Sarah Kliff noted in The Washington Post, there was back then, like today, scant evidence of the practice being a widespread problem, and that the U.S. gender ratio of 105 boys born for every 100 girls is much more balanced that China’s 117 boys for every 100 girls.

A 2008 University of Texas study does point to evidence, gathered from Census data, of some preference for sons in Asian immigrant families. But similar to findings in the U.K., this was determined by data showing families with two girls were more likely to become pregnant with a third child than those that already had a boy. With no evidence of a gender skew in birth data, it's unlikely that sex-selective abortions are actually happening in the U.S., which raises questions about why exactly South Dakota lawmakers are prioritizing the bill in the first place.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.