WASHINGTON (AP) — The House faced a vote Thursday on legislation to ban abortions based on the sex of the fetus, putting Congress squarely in the middle of partisan jockeying for the women's vote in the fall elections.
"It is violence against women," said Rep. Chris Smith, R-N.J., of abortions of female fetuses, which happens most commonly in Asian countries, such as India and China, where there is cultural preference for boys. "This is the real war on women."
It was uncertain whether Republican supporters had the two-thirds majority needed to pass the bill under procedural rules. Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., the author of the Prenatal Non-Discrimination Act, said the vote would have political ramifications whether it passed or failed. "When people vote on this, the world will know where they really stand."
"This type of sex selection, most Americans find pretty repulsive, and our members feel strongly about it. That's why it's being brought to the floor," House Speaker John Boehner said.
Opponents of the legislation, including the White House, Democratic lawmakers, abortion rights groups and some Asian-American organizations, say it could lead to racial profiling of Asian-Americans and subject doctors to criminal charges if they do not report sex-selection abortions to law enforcement. Even if it passes the House, it has little chance of seeing action in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
"The administration opposes gender discrimination in all forms, but the end result of this legislation would be to subject doctors to criminal prosecution if they fail to determine the motivations behind a very personal and private decision," White House spokeswoman Jamie Smith said in a statement. "The government should not intrude in medical decisions or private family matters in this way."
"Given the issue of sex selection in Asian countries, any woman who appears to be Asian-American risks intense questioning about the decision she has made to seek an abortion," the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health and the Black Women's Health Imperative said in a statement.
The legislation would make it a federal offense, subject to up to five years in prison, to perform, solicit funds for or coerce a woman into having a sex-selection abortion. Bringing a woman into the country to obtain such an abortion would also be punishable by up to five years in prison. While doctors would not have an affirmative responsibility to ask a woman her motivations for an abortion, health workers could be imprisoned for up to a year for not reporting known or suspected violations of the ban on sex-based abortions.
An earlier version of the bill also made it illegal to abort a fetus based on race.
"We are the only advanced country left in the world that still doesn't restrict sex-selection abortion in any way," said Franks, who has also collided with abortion-rights groups recently over a bill he supports to ban abortions in the District of Columbia after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Franks and others say there is evidence of sex-selection abortions in the United States among certain ethnic groups from countries where there is a traditional preference for sons. The bill notes that while the United States has no law against such abortions, countries such as India and China, where the practice has contributed to lopsided boy-girl ratios, have enacted bans on the practice.
Lawmakers "who recently have embraced contrived political rhetoric asserting that they are resisting a 'war on women' must reflect on whether they now wish to be recorded as being defenders of the escalating war on baby girls," said National Right to Life Committee legislative director Douglas Johnson.
His group, in a letter to lawmakers, said there are credible estimates that 160 million women and girls are missing from the world due to sex selection.
But the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that favors abortion rights, said evidence of sex selection in the United States is limited and inconclusive. It said that while there is census data showing some evidence of son preference among Chinese-, Indian- and Korean-American families when older children are daughters, the overall U.S. sex ratio at birth in 2005 was 105 boys to 100 girls, "squarely within biologically normal parameters."
NARAL Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan said that while her group has long opposed "reproductive coercion," ''the Franks bill exploits the very real problem of sex discrimination and gender inequity while failing to offer any genuine solutions that would eliminate disparities in health care access and information."
Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, said the bill fosters discrimination by "subjecting women from certain racial and ethnic backgrounds to additional scrutiny about their decision to terminate a pregnancy."
"Doctors would be forced to police their patients, read their minds and conceal information from them," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.