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Op-Ed: Feticide Laws, Bans on Abortion Used To Criminalize Asian-American and Immigrant Women

November 6, 2015 — "Across the country, Asian American women's reproductive rights are being challenged and their family-planning decisions are being policed based on racial stereotypes held by anti-choice activists and officials," Miriam Yeung, executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum, writes in a Washington Post opinion piece.

Yeung shares the stories of Purvi Patel, an Indian-American woman who has been imprisoned under Indiana's fetal homicide law, and Bei Bei Shuai, a Chinese immigrant who, after "attempt[ing] suicide and los[ing] her pregnancy in the process ... was charged under Indiana's feticide law."

Yeung writes, "It's no coincidence that both of these women are of Asian descent." She explains that states are using "stories of infanticide in India and gender-based abortions in China" to "adop[t] racially biased" laws banning abortion based on the sex of the fetus. Meanwhile, "laws like feticide, which were intended to protect pregnant women, are being used to criminalize immigrants and Asian Americans," she writes.

According to Yeung, fetal homicide laws, which "are on the books in 38 states," were "originally passed to support pregnant victims of domestic violence and other violent crimes." She explains that while "most states have not yet used these laws to criminalize pregnant women," Katherine Jack, Shuai's attorney, said that "if Patel's conviction is upheld on appeal, it 'basically sets a precedent that anything a pregnant woman does that could be interpreted as an attempt to terminate her pregnancy could result in criminal liability."'

Further, the National Advocates for Pregnant Women has tracked "hundreds of cases where women have been arrested, sentenced, or forced to undergo cesarean sections on the interpretation of laws that were never intended to be used to prosecute pregnant women," Yeung states. "This reproductive oppression disproportionately targets low-income women and women of color," she writes, pointing to "[a] study of arrests of and forced legal interventions on pregnant women" that "found that approximately 71 percent of those targeted were low-income, and 59 percent were women of color, predominantly African American."

Yeung adds that while "only four women in the study were identified as Asian or Pacific Islander, the anti-Asian rhetoric in the push for these laws has heightened since the research ended in 2005." According to Yeung, "cultural misinformation" about Asian women and families "has been used to pass [bans on abortion based on the sex of the fetus] in eight states and bring them up for consideration in at least 21." She adds that while research has shown that "the racist assumptions of proponents of these laws are false," bans on abortions based on the sex of the fetus "were the second most-proposed abortion ban in 2013 and 2014."

"These laws are part of a broader attack on women's health and rights, which cause disproportionate harm to women of color," Yeung continues, noting, "[T]he only two women prosecuted under Indiana's feticide law are of Asian descent -- when Asian residents are only 2 percent of the state's population." She adds that "immigrant women are made more vulnerable to these laws because they are isolated from" health care services, which can make them more likely to "take riskier paths to ending their pregnancies."

"Feticide laws, [bans on abortions based on the sex of the fetus] and similar legislation need to be seen for what they are -- proverbial wolves in sheep's clothing," Yeung contends. She writes, "Instead of criminalizing Asian American and immigrant women with these onerous laws, states should be creating culturally sensitive resources that help them safely exercise their reproductive rights and access quality mental-health care" (Yeung, Washington Post, 11/4).