NEW YORK (AP) - The practice of sex-selection abortion, usually targeting a female fetus due to parental preference for a son, has few defenders in the United States. Yet a proposed federal ban is drawing vehement opposition from liberal advocacy groups who call it a veiled attempt to undermine broader abortion rights.
The Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, sponsored by Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., would outlaw abortions done on the basis of gender or race. Women who had such abortions would not be penalized but those who performed them — or pressured a woman into having one — would face up to five years in prison.
At a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing Tuesday, supporters of the bill said passage would put the United States formally on record as opposing sex-selection abortions and prevent the country from becoming a "safe haven" for people from countries where the practice already is banned.
However, a witness speaking on behalf of an array of women's rights and abortion rights groups assailed the bill as "dangerous and duplicitous."
"Although this bill purports to support gender equity and civil rights, it does neither," said Miriam Yeung of National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum. "The legislative priority of the committee members who dreamed up this legislation is to take away the rights of women and communities of color, not to help us."
In Asian nations such as India and China, where many parents traditionally had a preference for sons, abortions of female fetuses are widespread even when authorities have tried to ban sex-selection abortions.
On a limited basis, the practice has spread to the United States among some couples from Asia, according to a 2008 study by two Columbia University economists. They analyzed the gender of U.S.-born children of Chinese, Korean and Asian Indian parents, and found that the odds of having a boy increased if the family already had a girl or two.
The researchers, Douglas Almond and Lena Edlund, said they did not know for sure what method was being used for sex selection, but suggested that the most likely pattern would be ultrasound to determine the sex of the fetus, followed by abortion of females.
How many gender-based abortions have resulted is not known. Abortion-rights advocates contend the number is very small, while Steven Mosher of the anti-abortion Population Research Institute says the practice has become "disturbingly common" in the U.S.
Franks' bill also would ban abortions based on race, although the bill's supporters have not publicly documented specific cases in which such abortions have occurred.
Rather, Franks says he included race in the bill because of his dismay over statistics showing that African-American women account for a disproportionately high number of the abortions in America. About 13 percent of American women are black, yet recent figures from the Centers for Disease Control show they account for 35 percent of the abortions.
Anti-abortion activists have depicted this phenomenon in dire terms — "genocide" and "holocaust," for example. But abortion-rights advocates say many of the women getting the abortions are struggling financially and are acting in the interests of children they already have.
"We believe that the true aim of the bill is to restrict the pregnancy decisions of black women rather than protect them from alleged coercion," said Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America.
Three states ban abortions based on gender selection, and Arizona earlier this year became the first state to ban abortions based on race as well as on gender. Critics said there was no evidence that selective abortions occurred in Arizona, and warned that doctors could face jail time if they failed to properly certify that an abortion wasn't for selection purposes.
However, in the eight months since the law's enactment, it has had little impact.
Franks' bill, even if it wins passage in the Republican-controlled House, is viewed as unlikely to prevail in the Democratic-led Senate. However, Yeung said she and her allies view the measure seriously because of its sensitive subject matter.
"We find it very divisive," she said. "We know the tactic is to drive a wedge between women of color and the pro-choice community."
Regarding the preference for sons in some Asian cultures, she said this is a symptom of deeply rooted social bias and gender stereotypes. "Gender inequity cannot be solved by banning abortion," she said. "The real solution is to change the values that create the preference for sons."
Franks has acknowledged that his bill is part of a broader push to outlaw most abortions.
"People will say I have a greater agenda — and they are right," he told The Daily Caller. "I hope for a day when all children, regardless of race or color, all children because they are children will be protected."