Asian tropes in sex-selective abortion bans have advocates worried about what's to come

Michael Ho Wai Lee

Amid discussions over reproductive rights, Asian American organizers and scholars emphasize that restrictions based on erroneous racial stereotypes have long been plaguing the community — and they fear there could be more instances to come.

Experts say that sex-selective abortion bans, or restrictions perceived to be sought based on the predicted sex of a fetus, have repeatedly been passed and proposed across several states in recent years. Critics say that legislators have justified it by invoking tropes about Asian families’ preference for sons.

In 2019, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, in responding to a petition to review an Indiana ban, wrote, "In Asia, widespread sex-selective abortions have led to as many as 160 million 'missing' women," and added that "selective abortions of girls are common among certain populations in the United States,” referring to Chinese and Indian American families.

These stereotypes have been debunked before, but advocates say it hasn’t stopped bills from being proposed, putting Asian American women’s reproductive rights at risk of being “policed.” And now, in the wake of a leaked draft opinion last week showing that the Supreme Court is likely to overturn Roe v. Wade, critics fear that more states, even progressive ones like Minnesota and New York, will be emboldened to propose, or reintroduce, these restrictions.

“We call it a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing,’” Becca Asaki, the New York organizing manager for the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, a rights advocacy group, told NBC Asian America. “It’s just a really awful attempt to chip away at our rights and to try and leverage stereotypes about our communities that are not actually true and are just deeply steeped in racism.”

Since 2009, roughly half of U.S. states and the federal government have considered sex-selective abortion bans. And several states, including Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Arkansas, have signed them into law. Asaki said the measure became popular after a high-profile 2012 national bill sought to punish providers who performed sex-selective abortions with fines or even prison time. Though the bill was ultimately rejected by the House, Asaki said a number of states followed suit, attempting to pass a carbon copy of the legislation.

Activists say that lawmakers in “safe haven” areas have attempted to implement these measures as well. Sex-selective abortion bans have been proposed several times in New York state. It wasn’t until 2021 that the New York City Council passed a resolution, urging Congress and the state Legislature to oppose a ban on sex-selective abortions, “which perpetuate racial stereotypes and undermine access to care.”

“It’s pulling together the sort of anti-immigrant racism into the abortion fight in order to leverage yet another restriction on access to abortion on form of medical care,” Ikemoto said.

Lisa Ikemoto, a professor who specializes in reproductive rights and health care law and policy at the University of California Davis School of Law, said that though race is not explicitly invoked in the legislation, the support for the ban relies on rhetoric that perpetuates archaic and harmful stereotypes about immigrant families while co-opting rhetoric of gender equality.

“It’s pulling together the sort of anti-immigrant racism into the abortion fight in order to leverage yet another restriction on access to abortion on form of medical care,” Ikemoto said.

Advocates say that in the past, some lawmakers have repeatedly cherrypicked stories of infanticide from China and India, to make their case for sex-selective abortion bans. Charlie Collins, a Republican who no longer serves in the Arkansas house, has said that he sponsored a 2017 sex-selective abortion ban in the state after conversations that China’s one-child policy had resulted in an uneven ratio of boys to girls.

But a 2014 University of Chicago Law School study showed that foreign-born Chinese, Indian and Korean America

But a 2014 University of Chicago Law School study showed that foreign-born Chinese, Indian and Korean Americans, on average, have more female children than white Americans. And when researchers looked at states that had implemented a sex-selective abortion ban, like Pennsylvania, no change in sex ratios followed. According to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights advocacy group, almost 90 percent of all abortions take place in the first trimester, before most women are even aware of the sex of the fetus.

Seri Lee is the national campaign and membership director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, and is based in Illinois, where lawmakers continued their since-failed attempts to pass the ban in 2019 even though it had been blocked by a court order. She said such policies put Asian American women at the discretion of health care providers, and allow practitioners to act on racist biases and stereotypes. The very introduction of the ban, Lee said, is a sign that lawmakers “don’t trust the AAPI community and they condone racial profiling, systemic discrimination.”

“Some providers might use those stereotypes to push that question a little bit harder on Asian patients and not others,” Ikemoto said. “And so, Asian American women might be more likely to face questions about the reasons for their abortion.”

Lee said that Asian American women already confront a number of existing barriers to health care, including language and distrust in their providers. Sex-selective bans seek to further alienate the community from proper care, and communication roadblocks could obscure those issues.

“If we take that into account, it’s even more likely that any type of bias or discrimination that a patient may experience doesn’t get reported,” Lee said.

With a possible overturn of Roe V. Wade on the horizon, in addition to existing restrictions on reproductive rights, Lee said that some states, like California, have groups that aim to counter these restrictions and ensure that abortion access expands.

“With the California Future of Abortion Council, they actually have this long list of what it would look like to actually have reproductive freedom to make sure that California remains a safe haven for abortion access for Californians, but also for people across the country,” Lee said.

"So even in states where abortion will still be legal, there’s still productive work being done.”

For now, Ikemoto said that she and so many others are left to process the possibility of a new, perhaps more restrictive reality.

“It’s a lot to take in. I was born in 1961. And so I’m the first generation that received the full protection of Roe v. Wade,” Ikemoto said. “I grew up with the understanding that women have the ability to make choices controlling their own bodies. And now it feels like we’re about to be pushed into a different world.”