Next week, the South Dakota legislature is expected to pass HB 1162, a bill that stereotypes Asian immigrants and restricts access to abortion. Supporters of the measure are using racially inflammatory language, invoking nativism and warning of the supposed danger created by the presence of Asians in the state. The bans purport to criminalize doctors who perform “sex-selective abortions,” which supporters claim are being sought out by Asian-American women.
Stace Nelson, one of the Representatives that voted in favor of the bill, stated, “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.”
This rhetoric is infuriating, but it is not new. The only thing new is how blatantly xenophobic the language in South Dakota is. These bans have typically been wolves in sheeps’ clothing, thinly veiled in the language of equality. In South Dakota the wolf has lost its clothes.
Since 2011, abortion bans parading as women’s rights bills and exploiting racial stereotypes have been on the rise. Lawmakers have proposed this in Congress many times and, in 2013, it was the second most proposed abortion ban at the state level. Given the onslaught of various types of attacks on abortion in recent years, this is striking. The ACLU, representing the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum and the NAACP of Maricopa County, is currently challenging Arizona’s version of this ban in court.
The hypocrisy of this bill is clear. Supporters claim Asian immigrants do not value women and girls, when their legislative records show plainly how little they care for the well-being of women. Instead of supporting measures that promote equal pay or ending violence against women, they are interfering in our most personal, private decisions. If they truly cared about gender inequity, their legislative agendas would look dramatically different.
Son preference, and sex-selection that can result from it, are deeply disturbing. However, there is no conclusive evidence that sex-selection is happening in the United States and, in fact, 2012 National Asian-American Survey data shows that Asian-Americans do not prefer to have boys over girls. Moreover, banning abortion is not a real solution. It has been shown to be ineffective in other countries and puts women’s health at risk. The real solution is addressing the root of the problem—gender inequity.
In terms of enforcement, there is no real way to know if a woman is having a sex-selective abortion. Doctors may be left to profile women based on where they look like they are from, resulting in increased scrutiny for Asian-American women. Worse, providers may feel compelled to deny women care out of fear of facing criminal charges.
Further, we cannot deny the psychological impact of this measure on Asian-American women. Through my conversations with Arizona residents, I know women feel stigmatized under this law as having backward values and looked down upon by their friends and neighbors simply because of their country of origin. As an Asian-American woman myself, and a feminist, the rhetoric surrounding these bills is hurtful and maddening. It is reminiscent of the nineteenth century term “Yellow Peril,” a colloquialism used to spread fear that Asians were attacking the American way of life. It also brings to mind the Page Act, which restricted Chinese women from entering the country because of claims that they were “immoral” and would spread prostitution. The damage that language and laws like this can have on our sense of belonging and value as equal members of society cannot be ignored.
This concoction of oppressions, made up of sexism, xenophobia, and racism, is not fooling anyone. Those of us who truly care about women know this is simply an attempt to chip away at abortion rights, on the backs of women of color.