The Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act Discriminates Against Women of Color

Criminalizing Women’s Choice Does Not Combat Problems in Our Society

On April 14, 2016, the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2016 was introduced by the House of Representatives, and then referred to the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee. This panel, made up entirely of men, discussed the merits of criminalizing abortions that are based on the sex and race of the fetus. To be clear, such legislature, if passed, would have the greatest impact on women of color and immigrant women, leaving Asian-American women especially vulnerable to scrutiny for sex-selective abortion.

Supporters of the Act claim that it is a matter of civil rights, and that the Act is meant to be antiracist and antisexist. Some states, including Arizona, have already passed such sex-selective and race-selective bans, and bills similar to this sex-selective and race-selective abortion ban have been introduced in Congress numerous times in 2009[1].


Are sex-selective abortions a real issue in the United States?

Sex-selective abortion is legally defined as “the systematic abortion of girls because of their burden on the family and low social worth in certain cultures,” according to the Civil Rights Law Journal. [2] Many who support the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act argue that there is a dire need for sex-selective abortion bans, especially among Asian-American women. Apparently, the cultural practices of Asian-American immigrants “fundamentally conflict with Western values” and encourage “various forms of female subjugation.” [3] Such discourses not only “other” Asian cultures as wayward and immoral but implies that sexism and discrimination are inherently part of such ethnic cultures. This also has the effect of othering Asian-Americans as fundamentally un-American and raises questions of citizenship.

Such discourse about discrimination against female fetuses is certainly a cause for concern, but only if it is true. Thus, it is important to examine the roots of such attitudes toward sex-selective abortions in Asian-American communities and examine the truth behind them. Supporters of sex-selective abortion bans point to the gender ratios at birth in Asian countries like China and India as well as marriage practices in which daughters become part of the husband’s household in order to suggest a “cultural preference for sons.”[4]

However, a recent report by University of Chicago researchers debunk such myths and stereotypical views of Asian culture. In fact, male-biased sex ratios in India and China are not unique to Asian countries, and in fact are found in countries with predominantly white populations. And of greater importance is that, based on national data, foreign-born Chinese, Indian, and Korean immigrants actually have more girls overall than White Americans. [5] This completely dispels the notion that Asian-Americans come “from ethnic backgrounds that are known to practice sex selection.” [6] Clearly, the political framings around sex-selective abortions within the Asian-American community are steeped in misrepresentations and stereotypes in an effort to limit women’s choices. While gender equality and discrimination are extremely important issues that must be addressed, it is clear that the support for the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act is not based on true or reliable evidence. In addition, the Act, whether it is passed or not, perpetuates negative and stereotypical discourses around Asian-Americans and Asian cultures. In turn, this impacts Asian-American women the most, leaving them vulnerable to heightened scrutiny around their reproductive decisions and increasing the stigma around their reproductive and sexual health.


Do pregnant women really decide to abort their fetuses due to the race of the fetus?

Trent Franks, Republican Representative of Arizona, who sponsors the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2016, seems to believe so. He made the following claim: “Today in America between 40 and 50 percent of all African-American babies, virtually one in two, are killed before they’re born, which is a greater cause of death for African Americans than heart disease, cancer, diabetes, AIDS, and violence combined…”[7] His statement, whose validity and source remain unclear, implies both that African-American women are committing feticide, and that abortion services are targeting African-American women. In fact, a billboard campaign of over 200 billboards displayed in major cities such as New York, Atlanta, Jacksonville, and Los Angeles targeted African-American, reading messages like, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.”[8] Such discourses suggest that women of color are responsible for racist discrimination against their own children without providing any real evidence that race-based abortions are an actual problem in the United States. By linking women’s racial identity to racism, banning race-selective abortions scapegoat women of color and ignore the real causes, such as lack of access to high-quality and culturally appropriate healthcare.

It is true that abortion rates for African-American and Latina-American women are disproportionately higher than that of white women. According to the Center for Disease Control, African-Americans made up about 36% of abortions in 2012, while the proportion of the United States population is 13% African-American.[9] However, painting women of color as the problem ignores the root causes of the racial disparity in abortion rates. Such disparities in reproductive health reflects the broader inequalities that people of color face, including economic inequality, one of the biggest roots of the racial disparity. In fact, white households are 18 times wealthier than Hispanic households and 20 times wealthier than black households[10]. Even if race was not a factor, low-income women have a higher rate of unplanned pregnancy and abortion because of lack of equal access to health insurance and birth control.

For women below the poverty line, Latina women have the highest abortion rate. Cultural and linguistic barriers often bar immigrant women from seeking health care or becoming eligible for health care services. In addition, undocumented immigrant women face low-wage employment, lack of opportunity, and fear of apprehension by immigrant enforcement. Failure to recognize these structural barriers that limit women’s access to reproductive care and limiting their choices based on misconceptions and stereotypes about race-selective abortions only further restricts their reproductive rights and freedom to make their own reproductive health decisions.

Rather than eradicate racial and gendered discrimination, the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act limits women’s choices and punishes healthcare professionals who provide abortions, encouraging them to scrutinize the motivations of women, particularly women of color, who seek abortions and reproductive care. To put it simply, the Act discriminates against women of color.

Abortion is a private and personal matter. All women have the right to make their own decision without facing scrutiny and possible criminalization. The landmark court case Roe v. Wade of 1973 established women’s rights to abortion free from governmental interference as included in the constitutional right to privacy[11]—the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act strips women of their rights to choose and their rights to privacy.

The answer to combating gendered and racial biases is not to limit a woman’s choice to obtain an abortion or to discourage health care providers’ choices to provide care to pregnant women. Despite the “nondiscrimination” included in the name of the Act, the Act undoubtedly paints women of color as incapable of making sound decisions regarding their own lives and bodies. In order to truly combat gender bias and discrimination, we must understand the roots and origins of the problem and examine the ways in which we—as individuals, communities, and a society as a whole—contribute to the notion that whiteness and maleness are superior.

[1] H.R.4924 – 114th Congress (2014-2016). Retrieved from

[2] See footnote 9.

[3] Greaves, Jason. “Sex-Selective Abortion in the U.S.: Does Roe v. Wade Protect Arbitrary Gender Discrimination?” Civil Rights Law Journal (2013): 333-363.

[4] See footnote 3.

[5] Citro, Brian, Jeff Gilson, Sital Kalantry, Kelsey Stricker. Replacing Myths with Facts: Sex-Selective Abortion Laws in the United States 23, no. 3. (2014): 1-38.

[6] Redden, Molly. “GOP Lawmaker: We Need to Ban Sex-Selective Abortions Because of Asian Immigrants.” Mother Jones, (February 5, 2014). Retrieved from

[7] Gillette, Justin. “Pregnant and Prejudiced: The Constitutionality of Sex- and Race-Selective Abortion Restrictions.” Washington Law Review 88, no. 645. (2013): 645-682.

[8] Fried, Marlene. “Reproductive Rights Activism in the Post-Roe Era.” American Journal of Public Health 103, no. 1 (2013): 10:14.

[9] Richardson, Bradford. “Women’s rights activists say Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing.’” The Washington Times. April 13, 2016. Retrieved from:

[10] Dutton, Zoe. “Abortion’s Racial Gap.” The Atlantic. September 22, 2014. Retrieved from:

[11] Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973).

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