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La. proposed abortion restrictions threaten Asian-Americans, activists say

Civil rights groups in Louisiana worry bill may push doctors to refuse services to Asian-American women

Civil liberties groups and Asian-American community advocates say a Louisiana bill to restrict sex-selective abortions, which passed the state’s House by a landslide on Thursday, is not only a thinly veiled attempt to “chip away at abortion rights,” but is also discriminatory and based on stereotypes.

House Bill 701, which passed in the state’s House by a vote of 80 to 2, will move onto the state senate. Both houses of the legislature are overwhelmingly Republican. The bill allows a prospective mother, father or grandparent to sue a physician for knowingly performing a sex-selective abortion, where one choses to terminate a pregnancy based on a fetus's gender.

The bill was introduced by Rep. Lenar Whitney, who argued that the practice is most prevalent among Asian-American families. Marjorie Esman, executive director of Louisiana’s American Civil Liberties Union, said that despite Whitney’s assertions, “there is no evidence that sex-selective abortions are a problem” in the state.

Louisiana has a gender at birth ratio of 105 boys to every 100 girls, according to 2012 statistics obtained from the Louisiana Department of Health & Hospitals’ Vital Records Department. That’s the same as the current U.S. gender at birth ratio, according to the CIA World Factbook. It also reflects the long-held phenomenon observed by scientists that slightly more boys are born than girls. The birth ratios in China and India, which have long grappled with gender imbalances, are 111 boys to 100 girls and 112 boys to 100 girls, respectively. 

Even more troubling, Esman says, is that the bill does not stipulate whether the doctor or the plaintiff must bear the burden of proof for the claim that the abortion was performed for the purposes of sex selection.

“The idea that you could have litigation without establishing what needs to be proven – it’s going to be a mess,” Esman said. 

Shivana Jorawar, of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) said the bill would make doctors think twice before performing abortions on Asian-American women. 

"We worry that doctors fearing punishment may turn Asian-American women away," Jorawar said. 

Whitney did not respond to an interview request from Al Jazeera at time of publication. Al Jazeera also submitted questions to Whitney regarding her comments at the state legislature, reported by the local Times-Picayune newspaper, that although she does not support a tax on cigarettes, she would support an “abortion tax.”

There are currently eight states in the U.S. that have anti-sex-selection abortion bans on the books. Illinois banned sex-selective abortions in 1975, and Pennsylvania the practice in 1982. After a recent surge of interest in the widespread practice of sex-selective abortions in India and China, a bill banning the procedure was introduced in the U.S. Congress in 2008, but it failed.

State legislatures followed suit. “In 2013, it was the second-most proposed abortion restriction across the United States,” said Jorawar.

“We know that this is a widespread problem in India and China, and that we are very concerned about that problem abroad,” Jorawar added. “But the fact is, in the U.S. it’s not a widespread issue, and it’s a deceitful way for anti-abortion lawmakers to chip away at abortion rights.”

States have used a variety of legal measures in recent years to restrict access to abortion, including waiting periods, required or suggested ultrasounds and informational materials that, reproductive rights advocates say, aim to dissuade women from the procedure.

Jorawar said sex-selective abortion bills perpetuate long-running negative stereotypes of Asian Americans, especially women, that are sometimes expressed in legislation. The Page Act of 1875, she noted, effectively resulted in barring all Asian female immigrants from entering the country, based on stereotypes that they were prostitutes. During World War II, thousands of Japanese-Americans were sent to internment camps based on suspicions that they were disloyal.

“We see these bans as a continuation of this discrimination against Asian-American women in the U.S.,” she said.

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