A New Goal for Anti-Choice Activists: Targeting “Sex-Selective” Abortion

This spring, workers at Planned Parenthood began to notice a flurry of visits from women asking very pointedly if they could use the women’s health organization’s services to abort a child based on gender. As Planned Parenthood announced in a press release:

Recently, one group has escalated these hoax visits in many states, apparently using secret recorders while inquiring about sex-selection abortions. We anticipate that this group, likely in coordination with a broad range of anti-choice leaders, will soon launch a propaganda campaign with the goal of discrediting Planned Parenthood, and, ultimately, furthering legislation that blocks access to basic reproductive health care, including birth control.

The unnamed group referred to here is assumed to be Lila Rose’s Live Action, whose “pimps and sex slaves” hoax visits to Planned Parenthood won her and her campaign a spot at the forefront of anti-abortion activism. As Amanda Marcotte has observed, it now appears that Lila Rose is intent on proving that “Planned Parenthood is eagerly targeting fetuses for being female.”

As for the legislation this wannabe sting action is intended to support? Look no further than the pending Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA).

Religious right champion Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona introduced the so-called “Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act” (H.R. 3541) on December 1, 2011; he had tried and failed to get a similar bill out of committee in 2008. This is the same bill that cast abortion as “black genocide,” helping fuel a 2010 Atlanta billboard campaign depicting African American children as an “endangered species.”

PRENDA could be this year’s Pence Amendment—named for its author Indiana Rep. Mike Pence (now running for Governor of Indiana) and his attempt to bring down Obama’s health care law over the federal funding of Planned Parenthood. PRENDA, like the Pence Amendment, is red meat for the anti-choice mission to defund and defame Planned Parenthood. It will also serve as a pure political tool to electrify the single-issue voter to recruit carloads of right-wing voters to the polls.

PRENDA, like the Pence Amendment, will likely not pass in the Senate. But if it passes the House we can expect a joint Boehner/Franks press conference designed to use the victory as reinforcement of a growing GOP meme: this bill will save millions of baby girls! The Democrats voted against saving the lives of potential women! Who’s waging the real war on women, Democrats? We are the true women’s rights advocates!

In a recent op-ed at Politico, “Battle Hymn of the Anti-Abortion Feminist,” Lila Rose begins, “In the ongoing debate over women’s health care, one voice has been mostly absent: that of the anti-abortion feminist.” Rose casts herself—and other anti-abortion activists—as the true champions of women, just like the rest of the GOP. Although PRENDA addresses “black genocide” again, this year’s focus is decidedly on sex-selection abortion.

In Rep. Franks’ opening remarks to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution (an all-male committee which he chairs), he declared:

…Fourteen million black babies have been aborted since Roe v. Wade. It translates to fully one-fourth of the African American population in America today. Now, you add to that the thousands of little girls who have been aborted in America simply because they are little girls instead of little boys.

The bill ticks all the anti-choice boxes. It provides criminal penalties for doctors who perform suspected sex- or race-selective abortion; has no provision to save the life of the mother; contains a so-called anti-coercion clause; and calls for the loss of federal funding to any organization found to be performing sex-selective abortions (cue Live Action’s Planned Parenthood operation).

PRENDA passed, with little fanfare, out of Franks’ subcommittee in February by a vote of 20-13. A staffer at the Office of the House Majority Leader told me the bill would be scheduled for floor debate soon.

A Non-Existent Problem

Among the evidence presented at the PRENDA hearing in December are two articles, one by the NY Times’ Ross Douthat, and one by Jonathan V. Last at the Wall Street Journal, both reviewing science journalist Mara Hvistendahl’s 2011 book Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls and the Consequences of a World Full of Men.

Both stories claim that Hvistendahl’s extensive research on sex selection in China, India, and Korea (countries where sex-selective abortion is an actual problem) supports a ban on abortion in America. I contacted Hvistendahl about her work. She seems frustrated with the way sex-selection abortion is being leveraged in America for political gain.

She told me via email, “It’s a shame that anti-abortion activists in the U.S. are coming at this with the ulterior motive of pushing through restrictions on all abortions—and that they’re targeting a group that today helps a lot of poor and working-class women.”

But Last’s WSJ review highlights a potential problem for pro-choice advocates in Hvistendahl’s work. As he explains:

Despite the author’s intentions, Unnatural Selection might be one of the most consequential books ever written in the campaign against abortion. It is aimed, like a heat-seeking missile, against the entire intellectual framework of “choice.” For if “choice” is the moral imperative guiding abortion, then there is no way to take a stand against “gendercide.” Aborting a baby because she is a girl is no different from aborting a baby because she has Down syndrome or because the mother’s “mental health” requires it.

Although choice advocates would counter that “gendercide” doesn’t exist in the U.S., the point remains: How can pro-choicers claim to be feminist and not take a stand against “gendercide”? Hvistendahl addresses this in “Blaming Abortion for Disappearing Girls”:

Anti-abortion advocates would have us believe that the practice of sex selection—a fundamentally sexist act—somehow justifies further curtailing women’s rights. They are aided in this hypocritical quest by the comparative silence of American feminists, many of whom are fearful of confronting the complex issues involving abortion. (Feminists in Asia have been tackling sex selection since the 1970s, when fetal sex determination via amniocentesis first hit India.)

But sex-selective abortion in the U.S. as “gendercide” is a drumbeat being picked up in the anti-choice community. There a bill to ban sex-selection abortion circulating in New York, and Georgia Right to Life is trying to gather support for similar legislation. Live Action even addresses the issue in a February blog post quoting a Canadian Medical Association Journal interim editor who called the abortion of “female babies” “discrimination against women in its most extreme form.”

There is no real evidence given in the PRENDA hearing to support the GOP’s claim that unborn girls are under siege in America. Census data is offered from California which shows boy births increasing in Chinese, Indian, and Korean American households after 1980. And another House committee testimony points to “populations demonstrated to practice” sex-selective abortions living in America as reason for concern. There are zero studies of abortions performed for the sake of sex-selection in the United States. 

The rest of the testimony in favor of PRENDA comes from religious anti-abortion activists: Alveda King, niece of Martin Luther King Jr. and director of African-American outreach at Priests for Life; Students for Life of America; Edwin Black of The Feature Group; The Alliance Defense Fund; and Steven Mosher of Population Research Institute.

Mosher is of special note as he was a vocal advocate and perhaps the inspiration for the 2008 PRENDA. As Hvistendahl writes:

In 2008 [Mosher] posited to supporters that sex-selective abortion was the next logical battleground in the abortion war—not because it is inherently discriminatory and results in worsening status for women but because an “incremental approach” to restricting access to abortion is more workable than a flat-out ban. “I propose that we—the pro-life movement—adopt as our next goal the banning of sex-selective abortion.”

And, as Kathryn Joyce has explained:

Mosher, president of the Catholic anti-contraception lobbyist group Population Research Institute (PRI), describes his grim vision of Europe’s future: fields will lie fallow and economies will wither. A great depression will sink over the continent as it undergoes “a decline that Europe hasn’t experienced since the Black Death.” The comeuppance has a name, one being fervently hawked among a group of Christian Right “pro-family” activists hoping to spark a movement in secular Europe. It’s called the “demographic winter,” a more austere brand of apocalypse than doomsayers normally trade in, evoking not a nuclear inferno but a quiet and cold blanket of snow in which, they charge, “Western Civilization” is laying itself down to die.

Thankfully, there was clear and forceful testimony about PRENDA as an anti-woman wolf in pro-woman sheep’s clothing by a number of advocates. This from Miriam W. Yeung, Executive Director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum:

PRENDA pretends to speak the language of women’s equality, but, unfortunately, the voting records of its supporters do not strengthen civil rights, women’s rights, or the rights of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. For example, this year alone, sponsors [of PRENDA] voted to defund family planning, eliminate funding for the United Nations Population Fund, ban abortion coverage in State health insurance exchanges, and allow providers to refuse abortion care even when a woman’s life is in danger.

This passage from Ms. Yeung’s testimony, along with similar testimony by African-American women’s rights organizations, speaks volumes.

The Bottom Line

While Lila Rose has never responded to requests for an interview, I did reach out to Steven Ertelt, founder of the online publication Life News, “The Pro-Life News Source.” He wrote an article immediately after Planned Parenthood’s press release came out about a possible Live Action sting. Ertelt had spoken to Rose’s people and they issued a statement that they don’t comment on “ongoing investigations.”

Ertelt is a longtime anti-abortion activist serving in leadership positions at state level Right to Life organizations and founder of Students for Life of America. (A 2009 article from Mr. Ertelt on sex-selective abortion was included in the December PRENDA hearing notes.)

I asked Ertelt how another Live Action video, this time portraying Planned Parenthood as pushing sex-selective abortions, would be damning, considering that Planned Parenthood clearly states they do not offer any sort of sex determination services.

Ertelt responded, “Because it would prove that Planned Parenthood is more interested in selling abortions than it is [in] protecting girls or concern for women’s rights or health.”

“The ultimate goal of such a sting operation,” Ertelt continued, “if one is even taking place, is to expose Planned Parenthood’s deception as it claims to be an agency that operates for the best interests of women.”

In Ertelt’s Life News article on the new video campaign, he speculated that “Planned Parenthood’s representative made it appear the abortion business would have no problem with doing abortions” for women seeking to select for sex. “In fact, comments from Planned Parenthood’s representative make some wonder whether the abortion business would ever ask if a woman or couple wanted an abortion for that reason.”

I asked Ertelt to clarify what he meant: How had the Planned Parenthood representative “made it appear” that the abortion “business” wouldn’t have a problem doing sex-selective abortion—a tricky motivation to determine in a country where abortion on demand is still legal?

He replied, “The PP rep said abortion decisions should be ‘left up to the woman.’ If abortion is up to the mother and the mother wants an abortions on the basis of the sex of the baby, then Planned Parenthood is clearly willing to do abortions for reasons of sex selection.”

It’s a long way around to the main target: the idea that abortion decisions are “left up to the woman.” This was the only real answer I got from Ertelt, and likely the only one that really matters in this debate. Women are, no matter how precariously, the ones in charge of their reproductive lives—and that, for anti-abortion advocates from Rose to Franks, is the problem.

andykopsa@yahoo.com'

Andy Kopsa is a writer based in New York City who investigates federally funded religious groups and the impact on public policy. She has written for The Revealer, RH Reality Check, Ms. Blog, AlterNet and various print publications. She is a native Iowan and former Iowa newspaper editor.