Sex-Selective Abortion Bans—A Disingenuous New Strategy to Limit Women's Access to Abortion

Entrenched Preference for Sons Should Be Addressed by Countering Social and Cultural Bias Against Women, Not by Eroding Their Health and Rights

Proposed bans on abortion for the purpose of sex selection, which are being promoted by abortion-rights opponents at the state and federal levels, would do nothing to address the entrenched gender bias that underlies the practice, but instead would harm women's health and rights, according to a new Guttmacher policy analysis.

"Rather than working to address the harmful social and cultural norms that lead to son preference and, as a result, sex-selective abortion, these proposals cynically advance a narrow agenda that starts and ends with banning abortion," says Sneha Barot, author of the new analysis. "The experience of other countries has clearly demonstrated that such bans are not only ineffective, but they further exacerbate gender discrimination by undermining women's autonomy and creating additional obstacles to women's health care."

Sex-selective abortion is widespread in certain countries, especially those in East and South Asia, where an inordinately high social value is placed on men over women. In those countries, sex-selective abortion has resulted in dangerously skewed sex ratios, with boys heavily outnumbering girls. In the United States, meanwhile, there is limited data indicating that sex-selective abortion may be occurring in some Asian communities, although the U.S. sex ratio, at 1.05 males for every female, is squarely within biologically normal parameters.

Barot provides a comprehensive overview of son preference as a long-standing global phenomenon, the social and economic dynamics driving it, the impact of skewed sex ratios and the strategies that countries have employed to counter it.

"Affected governments, multilateral agencies and others have been working on the problem of son preference and imbalanced sex ratios for decades," says Barot. "However, little headway has been made, because policymakers too often focus on the symptoms of the problem rather than its cause. Restrictions on ultrasound to determine the sex of the fetus and on sex-selective abortion have proven impossible to enforce. Meanwhile, the underlying gender discrimination that drives son preference—and needs to be addressed through social, legal and economic policies that raise women's status—remains. Only South Korea has made significant progress—and researchers largely credit changes in underlying social norms that resulted from urbanization and rapid economic development."

These lessons notwithstanding, U.S. abortion rights opponents have advanced legislation during the last four years to ban sex-selective abortion at the federal level and in 13 states, two of which—Oklahoma and Arizona—have already enacted such laws. These laws have met strong resistance from Asian women's rights groups, the very community they are ostensibly designed to protect. These groups cite myriad problems that such bans could create: They are neither enforceable nor effective, and they would only perpetuate further discrimination through stereotyping and racial profiling of Asian women, whose motivations for an abortion would be suspect.

"The vocal opposition of Asian women's groups to these sex-selective abortion bans should give policymakers ample reason to reconsider the true agenda these laws are advancing," says Barot. "What's more, sex-selective abortion bans that have been introduced at the federal and state levels are often paired with equally harmful race-selective abortions bans, which are portrayed as a response to higher abortion rates among minority women. Again, rather than addressing the serious underlying issues—including disparities in unintended pregnancy and other health outcomes, as well as broader social and economic inequities—these bans do nothing to help women, but are all about banning access to safe and legal abortion."

Click here to read "A Problem-and-Solution Mismatch: Son Preference And Sex-Selective Abortion Bans," by Sneha Barot.

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