What is the ban on abortions based on ethnicity or gender really about?

2 04 2011

By Karen Frantz

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer

This week Arizona became the first state to outlaw abortions based on ethnicity or gender, and supporters and opponents of the ban are wrestling to control the frame of the debate. Is this ban about discrimination? Or is it about abortion? Whichever side sets the frame will likely have a marked influence on overall support for the ban.

The legislation, which was signed into law by Gov. Jan Brewer this week, makes it a felony to knowingly terminate a pregnancy that was sought because of the race or sex of the fetus. Violators could face multiple years in prison, but the law only targets the doctors that perform abortions, not the women who seek them. It would not require patients to disclose why they are seeking an abortion.

Cynically speaking, the legislation could be a smart wedge-issue for social conservatives to use against progressives. The majority of Americans believe that abortion should be legal in certain circumstances or in all cases, according to polls. But certainly there are the many exceptions, and abortions based on race and gender are likely two of them. For example, a 2006 Zogby poll found that 86 percent of Americans thought sex-selective abortions should be illegal.

Part of the reason there is less support for such abortions may be that it invokes in people not just a simple heuristic of abortion and whether it is acceptable or not, but also discrimination and whether it is acceptable or not. Therefore, those progressive individuals who view abortion as acceptable (within the frames of privacy and civil rights, as opposed to the opposing frame of religious morality) but view discrimination as unacceptable may experience some cognitive dissonance when confronted with the ban. Thus, they may choose to view the ban in terms of one heuristic over the other in an attempt to resolve that tension. The task then for conservatives is to persuade people to view the ban in terms of discrimination instead of abortion, hypothetically resulting in increased support.

It does seem that many proponents are mainly framing the ban accordingly, presumably hoping to sway some progressives to their side. For example, Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, who authored the legislation, said he introduced the bill to “take a stand against bigotry and prejudice.” Notably lacking from Montenegro, who is an evangelical pastor, were the common conservative arguments against abortion. In fact, he told Reuters that the ban was not about the legality of abortion itself, but instead was only meant to address sex and race discrimination.

However, many organizations that oppose the ban, such as Planned Parenthood, are framing it in terms of abortion rights. For example, Planned Parenthood spokeswoman Cynde Cerf said the bill was “nothing more than a way to further vilify women who seek abortion care in Arizona.” Another Planned Parenthood officer, Bryan Howard, also invoked the common pro-choice message that the decision to have an abortion is a private decision between a woman and her physician, partner and family.

Moreover, Planned Parenthood is not only invoking the abortion rights frame, but is also casting doubt on the appropriateness of the discrimination frame. “We don’t have evidence of these kinds of motives in the state,” said Howard, referring to the incidence of abortions sought due to race or gender.

Here is where Planned Parenthood has the facts on its side – in fact, there is little evidence that such abortions are a widespread problem in the United States, and certainly sex-selective abortions in particular occur here far less often than in countries like China. Although such facts are unlikely to persuade social conservatives that the ban is unneeded, they may be enough to persuade progressives to see the ban in terms of the abortion rights frame instead of the discrimination frame.

However, this may be an issue to watch, as there is evidence that the incidence of sex-selective abortions, although currently negligible, is creeping upwards among particular populations. For example, a 2008 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that in the U.S. there was some evidence of a skewed male to female ratio, favoring males, among the non-firstborn children of Chinese, Korean and Asian Indian parents. (In those populations, if the first child was a girl, the ratio of boy to girl for the second child was 1.17 to 1. And if the first two children were girls, the ratio of boy to girl for the third child was 1.5 to 1.)

Given that more sophisticated technology has made it far easier to determine the gender of a fetus early on in a pregnancy — at a time when abortions are more likely to occur, and are becoming less invasive for the mother and are less expensive — sex-selective abortions may become a more pressing issue than it was in the past. Thus progressives may find themselves needing to develop a new heuristic for such abortions, rather than relying on traditional abortion rights frames.

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