In Washington and in state capitols around the country, newly empowered conservative majorities are introducing and passing a variety of laws aimed at curbing abortion rights. Much of it is straightforward, but in Arizona, anti-abortion advocates have titled their bill after two historic figures, a suffragist and a civil rights icon, presumably to make their legislation more attractive to more people.
The "Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act
of 2011" handily passed the Arizona House on Monday and is expected to win Senate approval and then the signature of Gov. Jan Brewer to become law. It basically bans abortion based on the sex or race of the fetus, and would impose penalties on abortion providers who knowingly perform such abortions.
The first part of the bill is based on the fact that abortion should not be legal to achieve sex selection. Interested parties can go to the Arizona website and pull up the committee hearing
and see for themselves that the arguments the politicians make around sex selection are the classic ones. Sex selection is not a good reason to have an abortion, but it's hard to see how this legislation would address the problem to the extent it exists, which is debatable. We know it goes on around the world. In the United States there have been studies showing some gender selection in favor of boys, and more recently, a study got a lot of attention because it showed a shift to favoring girls.
The Arizona legislation would require a woman to sign an affidavit prior to the procedure saying sex selection
is not the reason she is having an abortion. It's hard to imagine women walking in and saying otherwise, and the extra steps seem more of an attempt to vilify the procedure and undermine the judgment of a woman and the choice she has made. If you're trying to solve the problem of gender selection, the way to do it is to address the cultural norms that favor boys, or girls, if that's the direction we're going. And this bill doesn't resolve any of that.
Far more puzzling is the language concerning race and the bill's attempt to make legislation designed to intimidate the medical community look like it's a product of the civil rights community. The bill is attempting to draw attention to the higher rates of abortion in minority communities. But the reason that's the case is not because women are deciding their baby is a certain color and they don't want to have it anymore, which would be the corollary of the gender part of the bill.
Indeed, the Arizona bill is part of a larger effort around the country to win anti-abortion advocates in the African-American community. In Atlanta, billboards sponsored by an anti-abortion group say, "Black children are an endangered species." In New York City, a new billboard says, "The most dangerous place for an African American baby is in the womb."
A Planned Parenthood spokesperson speaking on background made the same point to me about race selection
that she did about sex selection: "It doesn't address the problem. It's a way to raise the rhetoric and make it seem like doctors are targeting the minority community and women are victims of an industry." Higher rates of abortion in the African-American community are due to poverty, lack of access to health care and lack of education, which taken together put more women, and girls, in the position of having an unintended pregnancy. Those underlying conditions are harder to address than appealing to age-old fears of black genocide, last advanced by the Black Panthers and now taken up by an anti-abortion movement that sees it as a way to make common ground with African-Americans, who are culturally conservative on the issue of abortion.
Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass would no doubt approve of efforts to reduce the number of abortions, but given their experience in two of the nation's defining social movements, they would also understand the tension between fundamental beliefs and life's circumstances, and the futility of banning a procedure that too many people turn to, justifiably.