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House Debates Sex-Selective Abortion Bill; White House Voices Opposition; Study, Column Question Legislation

House Debates Sex-Selective Abortion Bill; White House Voices Opposition; Study, Column Question Legislation

May 31, 2012 — The House on Wednesday started debate on a bill (HR 3541) that would ban sex-selective abortion, but voting was pushed to Thursday amid lawmakers' complaints that they need more time, Politico reports. Several lawmakers said they had not planned to return from recess in time for a Wednesday evening vote, sources told Politico (Feder, Politico, 5/30).

The Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, or PRENDA, would impose criminal penalties on abortion providers if they perform a procedure based on the fetus' sex or accept payments to do so, as well as anyone who coerces a woman to obtain an abortion because of the sex of the fetus.

The bill, by Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), also would block federal funding to organizations that do not comply with its provisions and require medical professionals to report suspected violations. Violators could be fined or imprisoned for up to five years. The bill does not include language from an earlier version that also would have banned abortion based on race.

The bill is being brought to the House floor under a procedure known as a suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds majority for a bill to pass and typically is reserved for less-controversial measures. It is unlikely that the bill will pass in the House, where 50 Democrats would need to join all Republicans to reach the two-thirds majority. The bill would face even longer odds in the Democrat-controlled Senate (Women's Health Policy Report, 5/30).

White House Opposes Bill

The White House released a statement on Wednesday saying that President Obama opposes the bill. Deputy press secretary Jamie Smith wrote, "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. The government should not intrude in medical decisions or private family matters in this way" (Tapper, "Political Punch," ABC News, 5/30).

Wednesday's Debate

Franks on Wednesday outlined the basis for the bill, stating that there are an estimated 200 million "missing baby girls" worldwide because of sex-selective abortion (Wetzstein, Washington Times, 5/30). He added, "A number of academic papers have now published evidence that the practice of sex-selection abortion is demonstrably increasing here in the United States, especially but not exclusively in the Asian immigrant community" (Viebeck, "Healthwatch," The Hill, 5/30).

Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) also cited a study, from Columbia University, which he said "found evidence that sex selection at the prenatal level is happening right here in the United States" (Kasperowicz, "Floor Action Blog," The Hill, 5/30).

Several Democrats argued against the bill. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) called it "the latest in a long series of measures intended to chip away" at women's right to receive safe and legal health care (Washington Times, 5/30). Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said proponents of the bill are "exploiting serious issues like racism and sexism (as part of) a backdoor attempt to make abortion illegal" (Silverleib, CNN, 5/31).

House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.) said it would be wrong to interpret a vote against the legislation as a vote in favor of sex selection, adding that the legislation "has come up because someone decided politically this is a difficult place to put people in" (Politico, 5/30).

Guttmacher Review Finds Bans on Sex Selection Ineffective

Laws that aim to prevent sex-selective abortion by banning the practice do little to stop it and fail to address underlying issues, according to a policy review released by the Guttmacher Institute, National Journal reports.

"Rather than working to address the harmful social and cultural norms that lead to son preference and, as a result, sex-selective abortion, these proposals cynically advance a narrow agenda that starts and ends with banning abortion," Sneha Barot, the author of the review, wrote. Guttmacher noted that the practice is relatively uncommon in the U.S., but that it is widespread in many South and East Asia countries, as well as some former Soviet Bloc countries (Fox, National Journal, 5/30).

Previous Studies

The Washington Post's "Wonkblog" reports that previous studies have not found evidence of widespread sex-selective abortion in the U.S., but researchers have "located instances of cultural forces pushing some women to end pregnancies because of the [sex] of their fetus." For example, a 2008 paper by a University of Texas economist showed some indications of a preference for sons among Asian American immigrant families. However, the paper concluded that it was unlikely that sex-selective abortion was occurring because there were not skewed sex ratios among families' third children compared with prior births. A smaller study from the University of California-Irvine of 65 Indian American women who had sex-selective abortions found that many were pressured to do so by their in-laws and husbands (Kliff, Washington Post, 5/30).

Columnist Writes That Rep. Franks' Bill Could Alienate Asian Americans

"The problem with Franks' proposal is that it's not entirely clear there is a problem," Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank writes. He notes, "Sex-selection abortion is a huge tragedy in parts of Asia, but to the extent it's happening in this country, it's mostly among Asian immigrants."

According to Milbank, by "singling out minority groups to make his political points, Franks risks aggravating a long-term problem for the Republicans." Milbank writes that "Republicans long ago lost African American voters," are now "well on their way to losing Latinos," and if "Franks prevails, they may lose Asian Americans, too" (Milbank, Washington Post, 5/30).