The U.S. House of Representatives May 31 rejected a bill that would ban sex-selective abortions, to the relief of several South Asian American domestic violence organizations who had lobbied hard against the bill.
HR 3541, known as the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act — PRENDA — failed on a vote of 264 to 168. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., would have required health care providers to report women who chose abortions based on knowing the sex of their child. Doctors who performed sex-selective abortions could have been imprisoned for up to five years, under the provisions of the failed bill.
Indian American women’s rights groups have typically opposed sex-selective abortions, saying the practice encourages gender discrimination and perpetuates a cultural preference for boys.
But several of those same groups opposed PRENDA, saying the legislation unfairly targets Asian American women and limits their right to choose abortions. A collective of more than 100 organizations — including Sakhi, Maitri, Apna Ghar and Manavi — sent letters to members of Congress May 29 stating their opposition to PRENDA.
“This bill is another blow to women’s rights,” said Sarah Khan, program director at Maitri, an anti-domestic violence organization based in Northern California. “PRENDA targets Asian American women and punishes them for something they may not even have chosen,” Khan told India-West, noting that South Asian American women are often pressured by their husbands or mothers-in-law to terminate female fetuses.
“Yes, there is a gender imbalance, but would this bill change anything or should we address the broader issues of gender equality first?” queried Khan, expressing relief that the bill did not pass the House last week.
The text of HR 3541 cited a 2008 Columbia University study, in which economists Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund examined the sex ratio of U.S.-born children and found “evidence of sex selection, most likely at the prenatal stage,” within populations that traced their ethnic origins back to countries where sex-selective abortions are prevalent, notably India, China and the United Kingdom.
The data revealed “obvious son preference,” noted Almond and Edlund.
The legislation also cited a 1990 report by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, who estimated that 100 million girls were “demographically missing” worldwide due to sex-selective abortions.
University of California San Francisco researcher Sunita Puri did a five-year study of 65 immigrant Indian American women who were pursuing fetal sex selection at fertility clinics. About 89 percent of women who found out that they were having a girl underwent an abortion, she concluded in her 2009 study.
Most of the interviewees spoke of significant pressure to bear a son, said Puri. Two-thirds of the women experienced direct verbal pressure from in-laws, and one-third of the women interviewed by Puri described physical abuse specifically related to their inability to produce a male child.
But Sujatha Jesudason, who heads a reproductive rights think tank at the University of California San Francisco, conducted several focus groups with South Asian women and found that sex-selective abortions were relatively rare.
“Very few people had personal knowledge of someone who had aborted a child based on its sex,” Jesudason told India-West, adding, however, “It may be that this is an underground issue or that people are unwilling to talk about it.”
Jesudason, who served as the executive director of the now-shuttered organization Generations Ahead, said her former group had actively lobbied against HR 3541. “This bill makes any woman seeking an abortion suspect of criminal activity. The health care provider would be forced to make such a determination and may not do the procedure for fear of criminalization,” she said.
India passed a ban on sex-selective abortions in 1996, but child sex ratios have not improved in the 16 years since that measure was enacted, noted U.C. Riverside researchers Arindam Nandi and Anil B. Deolalikar in a paper released last April.
Citing the latest Indian census, Nandi and Deolalikar estimated that India currently has 914 girls for every 1,000 boys. More than half a million sex-selective abortions take place in the country each year, despite the ban, noted the researchers.
Tiloma Jayasinghe, executive director of Sakhi, an anti-domestic violence organization based in New York, told India-West, “We’ve seen that in India, a ban does not work. The practice simply goes underground.”
“(PRENDA) is an anti-immigration bill couched in the guise of protecting women and their unborn children. It violates doctor-patient confidentiality and will hurt women more than it will help them,” stated Jayasinghe.
Debjani Roy, program manager at Manavi, based in New Brunswick, New Jersey, said HR 3541 discriminates against all Asian American women, even those simply wanting to know the sex of their future child.
“It is very unfair that a woman should be asked why she is choosing to terminate her pregnancy,” Roy told India-West.
Franks, who sponsored the bill, said in a press statement, “I note the sad and bitter irony that President (Barack) Obama, who has disingenuously accused Republicans of a so-called 'war on women,' mustered a truly breathtaking display of hypocrisy in opposing a bill that would prevent aborting those little babies who have the 'nerve' to be little girls.”
Rep, Diane Black, R-Tenn., who supported the measure, said in a press statement, “United States law currently prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender. Abortion should be no exception. Victims of sex-selection abortions are overwhelmingly female. This is a growing problem that needs to be addressed.”