When banning abortion is a cover for discrimination: The selective abortion issue

Morgan-with-pounamu-pendant_WebThis is the ninth in the blog series by Morgan Healey, immediate past President of ALRANZ, who has recently returned to the US. It aims to bring to life the uniquely absurd state of reproductive rights and justice in the US.

A bill was recently introduced in the US Congress that would impose criminal penalties on any provider that performed an abortion because the pregnant person did not want to give birth to or raise a child of a particular sex or race. In other words, the law would outlaw sex and race selective abortions.  This is not a new concept. This particular legislation has been debated before and there are already eight sex selective abortion bans and one race selective abortion ban enacted at the state level (See Guttmacher’s State Policies in Brief).

The Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act 2016(HR 4924), commonly referred to as PRENDA, unsurprisingly does the exact opposite of what is says on the tin.  That’s right. Don’t let the title fool you. Hidden under a thinly veiled guise of disingenuity is a bill designed to discriminate, to infantilise, and to police the bodies of non-white people in the US. (Read Rewire’s coverage of the Congressional testimony here.)

What is the likely outcome when medical professionals, fearing that they might be criminally penalized for performing a simple medical procedure, one they were specially trained to perform, are presented with a non-white, pregnant person seeking an abortion? I will go out on a limb here and say the person will be refused care, while simultaneously discriminating against based on their skin colour.

Sound familiar?

It should. This is what structural racism is: it identifies, codifies and marginalizes people based on the colour of their skin or their ethnic background. Instead of seeking to combat it, Congress has decided to reinscribe and perpetuate it (wait, sorry, they have been doing that for years – see the 1990s).  But I digress…

What is perhaps even more pernicious is that a bunch of white, middle aged Congressmen (and I use the term men purposefully) are telling a group of non-white women that this is for their own good.  Or as Miriam Yeung, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, and the only pro-choice witness at the Congressional hearing, stated, PRENDA “perpetuates the offensive stereotype that Black women are unable to make reproductive health decisions for their own families.”

Remember slavery and the insidious belief that white people were ‘saving’ black people from themselves? Slavery was for the slave’s own good as they were genetically unable to take care of themselves and/or they were somehow genetically predisposed to grueling manual labour.  Well these types of abortion bans hark back to that kind of racist and paternalistic thinking. And to similar results: the systematic denial of non-white women’s right to autonomy and control over their bodies – pregnant or otherwise.

Appalled yet?

I am.

Even if this was not reason enough to kill PRENDA in its tracks, there is actually no evidence to suggest that race and sex selective abortions are happening on a large scale in the US (See a New York Times article from 2012 when a similar bill was introduced by the same Representative from Arizona, Trent Frank, that introduced PRENDA 2.0 this year). It is a non-issue, but one that is being used to enshrine discrimination against and the infantilization of non-white women while also further entrenching abortion restrictions in the US.

But let’s for a moment pretend that there was a noticeable increase in women choosing to abort because of the fetus’s race or sex.  Would a bill like this be more permissible? Valid even? Would it help to curb the underlying issues that mark women’s abortion decision making in these situations – i.e. society placing a higher value on a certain sex or skin colour?

Um, no. Absolutely not. Not a snowball’s chance in hell. Refer to arguments above about how these laws are designed TO discriminate, not to dismantle or contest racism or sexism.

Linking the moving parts

Before I conclude, I want to draw further parallels with two recent items in the news: one, selective abortion bans that extend to fetal diagnosis, specifically Down Syndrome, and two, the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) hearing on Obama’s immigration policy – Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Legal Permanent Residents (DAPA) and expanded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals

(DACA) – in United States v. Texas. Click here to learn more about the case.

In response to the Missouri State Senate’s introduction of a bill that would ban abortions based on prenatal screening for Down Syndrome (DS), an author and mother of a child with DS challenged those who use disability as a lightening rod for abortion restrictions. I encourage you to read Rachel Adams’ piece in the Washington Post – My son with Down Syndrome is not a mascot for abortion restrictions.

The common thread here, aside from the obvious – this is another type of selective abortion ban – is the devaluing of certain life and deeming it not worth living. This is perhaps even more explicit in discussions that privilege ableism and construct the lives of people with impairments as hard or difficult. However, the solution to the devaluing of certain life is not banning abortion. Abortion is a red herring. The issue here is societal attitudes toward and ascribed worth of able-bodiedness. This is what needs to be challenged, not making abortions harder to access.

The second thread relates to the Supreme Court hearing on the legality of Obama’s immigration executive orders – DAPA and DACA. As we think about criminalizing non-white bodies, PRENDA and state challenges to DAPA and expanded DACA go hand-in-hand. Like the abortion bills discussed above, state challenges to Obama’s executive orders are about states being able to police their own non-white bodies without the interference of the federal government. Deportation orders, which have been occurring all over the US over the last year, exemplify the disregard the US has for human life, despite protests to the contrary, and the steps it will go to assert its control over defenseless, often marginalised people and families. Make no mistake this is just as much a reproductive justice issue, allowing people to raise their children without fear of deportation or detainment, as selective abortion ban restrictions.

As Donald Trump taught us in his disavowal of the Standard Answer, the antis do not care about pregnant people’s lives. They care about controlling them. I would surmise that many of these people are the same ones who cheer at the idea of building a wall around Mexico and driving out non-white migrants. Because what these beliefs have in common is the righteousness of discrimination for the protection of the white hegemony.

Similar claims have been made by the antis in New Zealand. The Abortion Supervisory Committee, after examining the claims, concluded that sex selective abortions were also not an issue in Aotearoa.

Note, this is just the most recent bill introduced. North Dakota passed a similar bill in 2013, and Ohio and Indiana are currently considering bills.

In saying this, I also recognize that for families and people with disabilities that life can be daily struggle, often made more difficult by the lack of available or affordable social supports, and ongoing discrimination.