Congress is set to wade into one of the most sensitive topics in the abortion debate, with a House vote Wednesday on a bill that would ban abortions that are performed solely because of an unborn child's sex.
Pro-life advocates say sex-selection abortion amounts to a "war on baby girls," and maintain that the practice - which is outlawed but still common in countries such as India and China - is on the rise in the United States.
"The real war on women occurs every day all over the world, even here in the United States," said Susan Armacost, legislative director of the Wisconsin Right to Life.
Worldwide, more than 100 million girls are estimated to be "missing," and a first-of-its kind study by University of Texas economics professor Jason Abrevaya estimated that more than 2,000 girls were "missing" among Asian women who gave birth in California between 1991 and 2004.
But pro-choice advocates counter that the House's Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA) is just another attempt to curb the right to an abortion, and doesn't address the underlying cultural and economic behaviors that feed the so-called "son preference" in some cultures.
"We will not be used as a weapon in the war on women," said Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum. Sex-selection abortion bans haven't worked elsewhere, she said, but South Korea saw its sex-ratio return to near-normal levels after the country changed property laws, expanded economic growth and launched a "Love Your Daughter" campaign.
The House bill would criminalize the "barbaric" practice of aborting a child solely because of its sex, and makes it illegal to coerce, fund or transport a pregnant woman to have such an abortion. Women who have such abortions would not face prosecution, and health-care providers would not be required to ask why a woman is having an abortion.
"This is an issue upon which all Americans should be able to find agreement, regardless of our party affiliations or even our beliefs about abortion," said Rep. Trent Franks, Arizona Republican and lead sponsor of the bill.
PRENDA is being brought to the House floor Wednesday under a fast-track procedure known as a suspension of the rules, and thus would require a two-thirds majority to pass - a tall order for the current body, which is split 242 Republicans to 190 Democrats, with three vacancies.
The measure would face even longer odds in the Democrat-controlled Senate, where most give it no chance of passage.
The House vote follows the release of a video taken surreptitiously in April at a Texas Planned Parenthood clinic by anti-abortion activist Lila Rose's Live Action group, which purportedly showed an employee of the organization counseling a woman contemplating a sex-selection abortion.
In the video, released Tuesday, a pregnant woman says she and her husband plan to abort the fetus if it is female. The Planned Parenthood employee answers questions and offers advice.
At one point, the pregnant woman asks whether, instead of telling ultrasound technicians and other health-care officials that she will terminate the pregnancy if it's a girl, "[I should] just keep it quiet and then come here?"
"Yeah, I would," the Planned Parenthood employee replies, noting that other people might "judge" the woman. "I'm just trying to, you know, help you as much as possible with this," the employee says, ending the visit with, "Well, good luck, and I hope that you do get your boy."
The video is posted at protectourgirls.com.
Leslie Kantor, vice president of education for the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said that the Texas employee had been let go because she "did not follow our protocol" for dealing with "a highly unusual patient scenario."
"Planned Parenthood insists on the highest-quality patient care, and if we ever become aware of a staff member not meeting these high standards we take swift action," she said.
Planned Parenthood "opposes racism and sexism in all forms," she said, adding that the video is a "hoax patient encounter."
Four states - Illinois, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma and Arizona - outlaw abortions performed solely because of the sex of the child.
All sex-selection abortions stem from the determination of the baby's sex. Some medical tests are available early in pregnancy - and one over-the-counter test claims it can predict the sex of the fetus as early as 10 weeks after conception. But many times, parents wait for an ultrasound scan, which takes place in the fourth or fifth month of pregnancy.
Sex-selection abortions, therefore, are often done in the second or third trimester.
According to demographers, a "normal" sex ratio at birth is about 104 boys for every 100 girls. Experts become alarmed when they see a sex ratio that exceeds 106 boys to 100 girls.
In his 2009 study, Mr. Abrevaya analyzed birth data of several racial groups, including white, black, Chinese and East Indian mothers in California.
The white and black mothers showed no gender differences in births - boys were as likely to be born as girls - and normal sex ratios were also seen for first-born children of Chinese and Indian mothers.
But for third and fourth babies, the preference for boys in Asian populations was unmistakable and "could not be explained" by biology, said Mr. Abrevaya, whose study appeared in the American Economic Journal. He estimated that between 1991 and 2004, there were 900 "missing" girls among Chinese mothers and 1,300 "missing" girls among Indian mothers.
The reasons for "son preferences" include traditional inheritance practices, male employability, wedding customs that favor the groom and his family, and burial practices that require a son's attendance to the dead.
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