Gavin Barney, LSRJ Summer Intern (’16, University of California, Berkeley School of Law)
The documentary It’s a Girl was released in 2012 to immediate acclaim in traditionally progressive and pro-choice corners – the Amnesty International Film Festival made it an official selection and Ms. Magazine called the movie “unflinching” in its positive review. Fully titled It’s a Girl: the Three Deadliest Words in the World, the film describes the problem of son preference in India and China, telling how, tragically, as many girls are “eliminated” yearly in those countries as are born in the United States. However, the documentary was not quite what it appeared: a 2013 article in Slate uncovered that It’s a Girl was produced with strong, but well hidden, ties to an organization called Harvest Media Ministry that makes anti-choice videos. The film also has a subtle, but real anti-abortion message. The really troubling thing about It’s a Girl is not necessarily who produced it however – anti’s are not automatically incapable of producing material of worth. Rather, the problem is how films like this fit into the narrative of another issue here in the United States: the recent onslaught of “sex-selective abortion” ban legislation that impose criminal penalties on the performance of an abortion sought because of the sex of the fetus.
Last week I attended a talk coinciding with the release of a new report on the issue of sex-selective abortion bans called “Replacing Myths with Facts.” Produced by Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), and the University of Chicago, the study identifies six common and damaging myths and misconceptions that have allowed sex-selective abortion bans to worm their way into so many legislative sessions. Chief amongst these myths is that male-biased sex ratios “are proof that sex-selective abortions are occurring,” (spoiler: there are other major factors at play) and that the “primary motivation behind laws banning sex-selective abortion in the United States is to prevent gender-based discrimination” (another spoiler: it’s really about restricting access to abortions in general).
The speakers began their presentation by introducing the room to It’s a Girl. It was suggested at the talk, and I am inclined to agree, that one of the reasons both that It’s a Girl has been a hit among pro-choice people and that anti-choice organizations and politicians have so aggressively pushed sex-selective abortion bans is that the issue of sex selection is particularly uncomfortable for pro-choice folks. The notion that people would be actively choosing boy babies over girl babies, and acting on those choices, is disturbing to any person with even the broadest feminist beliefs. Additionally, recent technological innovations that potentially open the door to allowing people to use artificial reproductive technologies to choose traits, including sex, for so-called “designer babies” make questions of sex preference more current and significant. In light of these realities, it is not terribly surprising that many normally pro-choice people may be willing to start carving out exceptions to abortion access – and it is equally unsurprising that racial stereotypes and misconceptions have played a major role.
This, of course, is where “Replacing Myths with Facts” comes in. In its introduction, “Replacing Myths” explains how proponents of sex-selective abortion bans focus on “the problem of ‘missing women’ in China and India in particular” to justify their policies. They rely on and reinforce stereotypes that people in the Asian and Pacific Island community bring these presences and practices to the US. This is myth #5 that “Replacing Myths” debunks: the most recent studies have found that foreign born Chinese, Indians, and Koreans actually “have more girls overall than white Americans.” This is a particularly important myth to debunk because the way the laws are designed – putting the onus on the health care provider to deny abortions based on son preference with the threat of criminal sanctions –opens the door to doctors generally denying API women abortions out of stereotype fueled fear.
Sex-selective abortion bans have become an extremely prevalent tactic to limit abortion access, and the fact that these policies are based heavily on racist stereotypes and spread by playing on people’s racial misconceptions make this an issue of particular import to supporters of reproductive justice. I encourage you to read “Replacing Myths with Facts” and to inoculate yourself as best you can against the lies around sex-selective abortion.