Document Type

Article

Publication Date

2014

Abstract

Sex selection is the practice of attempting to control the sex of one’s offspring in order to achieve a desired sex. One method of sex selection is sex-selective abortion. Laws banning sex-selective abortion are proliferating in the United States. Eight states have enacted laws prohibiting sexselective abortion. Twenty-one states and the federal government have considered such laws since 2009. Those laws prohibit the performance of an abortion if sought based on the sex of the fetus and provide for both criminal and civil penalties in most cases.

A great deal of misinformation exists regarding sex selection in the United States. We have identified six inaccuracies commonly associated with sex-selective abortion and laws prohibiting it. They appear, among other places, in statements made by legislators, testimony submitted to legislatures, and reports issued by legislative committees that have considered or adopted laws banning sexselective abortion. We present each piece of inaccurate information as a “myth.” This Report draws on legal research, empirical analysis of U.S. birth data, field-work, and an extensive review of scholarly publications in social sciences, law and other disciplines to replace these myths with facts. Legislators and proponents of sex-selective abortion bans have consistently referred to the existence of male-biased sex ratios and the practice of sex selection in other parts of the world. Discussions have focused on the problem of “missing women” in China and India in particular. However, China and India are not the only countries with male-biased sex ratios. On the contrary, the two countries with the highest sex ratios at birth are Liechtenstein and Armenia (see discussion of Myth #2 below). Both have higher sex ratios at birth than China and India.

Legislators and major news outlets have stated that the United States is one of the few countries that does not prohibit abortion for sex selection purposes. However, the eight states in the United States that currently ban sex-selective abortion are among a small minority of places in the world where it is banned. Only four other countries explicitly prohibit sex-selective abortion: China, Kosovo, Nepal and Vietnam (see discussion of Myth #3 below). Instead, many countries that are concerned about sex selection prohibit the use of technology to sex select prior to implantation of the embryo in the uterus. The main empirical support for the view that Asian Americans are obtaining sex-selective abortions based on son preference in the United States is from a study by economists Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund published in 2008. That study, using United States census data from 2000, found that when foreign-born Chinese, Indians and Koreans have two girls, the sex ratios at the third birth in those families is skewed towards boys. However, in analyzing more recent data from the 2007 to 2011 American Community Survey (ACS), we found that the sex ratios at birth of foreign-born Chinese, Indians and Koreans are not male-biased when all their births are taken into account. In fact, foreign-born Chinese, Indians and Koreans have proportionally more girls than white Americans (see discussion of Myth #5 below).

Proponents of sex-selective abortion bans claim they are needed to “prohibit discrimination against the unborn on the basis of sex” and to stop the practice of sex selection among Asian Americans in the United States. As noted, sex-selective abortion is only one among several methods available to select the sex of one’s offspring. None of the laws enacted or proposed in the United States prohibit methods other than abortion, such as sperm sorting or preimplantation genetic diagnosis (see discussion of Myth #1 below). Instead, the laws focus solely on abortion. Moreover, sex-selective abortion bans have not been shown to impact sex ratios in the United States. On the contrary, our study shows that laws in Illinois and Pennsylvania—adopted in 1984 and 1989, respectively—are not associated with changes in sex ratios at birth in those states (see discussion of Myth #4 below). Sex-selective abortion laws are part of the legislative campaign of groups opposed to reproductive rights. The laws are generally proposed by legislators who are anti-abortion. Our analysis found that over 90% of Republican representatives in the six states that enacted bans in the last four years voted for the laws. In contrast, less than 10% of Democrats voted for the bans in four of the six states. In the two states where sex-selective abortion bans achieved meaningful support from Democrats— Oklahoma and South Dakota—laws that restrict access to abortion consistently receive bipartisan support (see discussion of Myth #6 below).


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