South Dakota House Passes Pointless Ban on Sex Selective Abortions


||| Bethany Ann Khan/Flickr
Bethany Ann Khan/Flickr

Despite having absolutely zero evidence that sex-selective abortions are a problem in South Dakota, state legislators are trying to pass a bill banning such procedures. The measure (House Bill 1162) was approved by the Republican-controlled House last week by a vote of 60 to 10. 

Sex selective abortion (also referred to as "gender-based abortion") is the practice of terminating a pregnancy because of a fetus' predicted sex. It's common in places such as China and India, where male offspring are more highly prized than females.

Obviously, the sex selective abortion rate in America is hard to track, since women seeking abortions aren't required to provide a reason why they want to terminate their pregnancies. But based on the sex ratios of babies born here, the practice seems to be rare.

That's not to say it doesn't happen. But—at the risk of sounding like a sociopath—so what? A woman's reproductive rights aren't invalidated just because we may not like her motivations. Women terminate pregnancies for all sorts of reasons—economic hardship, medical conditions, simply not desiring to have a child. And, perhaps, to try again for a more preferred sex next time. Who are government officials to say which reasons are valid and which are not?

The whole thing reeks of thought policing: You can have an abortion, but only if we deem your attitudes toward it appropriate. I've never been a fan of rape exceptions for the same reason. Either abortion (up to whatever point) is legal, or it isn't. The business of why shouldn't come into play. If sex selective abortions were so common as to create widescale gender imbalance, perhaps the issue might warrant attention (perhaps). But that is nowhere near the case in the United States.

South Dakota's potential gender-based abortion ban is a solution in search of a problem. Here's the bill's sponsor, State Rep. Jenna Haggar, when asked in a hearing last Wednesday whether gender-based abortions actually happen in South Dakota.

REP. JENNA HAGGAR: "Yes, as of right now, if a woman were to walk into an abortion clinic and say, 'I would like to have an abortion for no other reason than my unborn baby is a girl'…she absolutely would get an abortion."

REP. TROY HEINERT: "Do you have an instance of where that occurred?"

HAGGAR: "What I know is that abortions up to 14 weeks right now are currently legal, so yes, I do believe that occurs."

HEINERT: "I guess that proves to me that is based on assumption…The prime sponsor just said that she believes it happens, but can't prove that it happens.

Haggar was undeterred, pointing out that international data "consistently (show) higher ratios of males over females…particularly in certain Asian countries." But since when do we set American policy based on what people are doing in Asian countries? Quick, somebody draft legislation banning betel leaf! 

South Dakota wouldn't be the first state to pass a bill banning sex selective abortion. Seven states (Arizona, Illinois, Kansas, North Carolina, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Oklahoma) have already done so, and the issue was brought before the U.S. House of Representatives in 2012. But the laws are—at best—little more than a feel-good circle-jerking opportunity for legislators (and at worst a time-wasting ploy to paint opponents as promoting a war on little girls). Because women aren't required to state why they want an abortion in order to get one, gender-based abortion bans accomplish effectively nothing.

And even if women were forced to justify their reasons for terminating a pregnancy (under the South Dakota law, physicians would be required to ask those seeking abortions whether they're doing it because of the sex of the fetus), what's to stop them from simply concealing their true motivation? Do we start outfitting Planned Parenthood clinics with lie detectors? As Ed Kilgore wrote at Washington Monthly: "Proponents of this kind of legislation must think Asians are not only misogynist, but too stupid to come up with another reason for seeking an otherwise entirely legal abortion." 

Unfortunately, it's all too easy for politicians to drum up hysteria and support for these types of pointless abortion restrictions. I'm glad to see at least some South Dakota politicans pushing back against the legislation.

"I think everybody in this room knows where everybody stands when it comes to this issue. I don't think anyone is 'pro abortion,'" Rep. Heinert said at last Wednesday's hearing. "My point is it takes courage to stand up and say, 'This law is unneeded.' If this was happening in South Dakota, then bring it. Show me some instances where this happened…but it takes courage to say, 'This is an unneeded law, it's unneeded regulation.'"