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Sex-selection bill shows just how far apart we are on abortion

Posted May 31, 2012, at 9:19 p.m.

Congress Thursday rejected the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act, which would have banned sex-selective abortion in the United States. A majority of representatives voted for the bill — 246-168 — but it needed a two-thirds majority to pass.

Given that mixed outcome, the only sure takeaway — besides the fact that the pro-life movement is sure to be emboldened by the 246 votes for the legislation — is that the abortion debate remains so fraught that the two sides can’t even have a reasonable conversation about something that could be a point of agreement.

The commentary from the pro-choice side is stereotypical and predictable. Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel complains that sex-selective abortion isn’t even a big deal in the United States. A trio of writers at the Huffington Post condemn the gender bias that leads to sex-selective abortion but call the bill’s supporters “hypocrites … who don’t care about sex discrimination.”

Believe it or not, even though I’m pro-life, I understand their complaints about the pro-life movement. I wish fervently that more in the anti-abortion movement would focus on family planning and preventing pregnancy, rather than trying to pass personhood legislation. I can see how this new focus on sex-selective abortion could be viewed as just another way to chip away at abortion rights, a new front to distract from the failures of personhood efforts.

At the same time, too many in the pro-choice movement refuse to believe that anyone who’s pro-life actually cares about the unborn. They can’t allow themselves to believe anything but that we hate women and are afraid of sex, because if they acknowledge that our concern is for the unborn, they might have to challenge their own beliefs.

And so we can’t even find agreement on an issue that should bring us together. I find the pro-choice critiques of PRENDA to be either tired and lazy or strangely hypocritical. As to the idea that sex-selective abortion isn’t a big deal because it doesn’t happen that often, well. … women who work at Catholic hospitals only make up a tiny percentage of the overall workforce, so I guess all that hubbub about whether they should have employer-provided birth control isn’t that big of a deal.

At the HuffPo, Miriam Yeung, Jessica Gonzalez-Rojas and Eleanor Hinton Hoytt write that “there are better ways to combat gender bias” than passing this legislation. And societal and cultural efforts to fight the bias that leads to these abortions is laudable. But to say there’s no room for legislation? That’s like saying we didn’t need the Civil Rights Act, or that gays should have waited a while until everyone got comfortable with the idea of them getting married.

Critics of the law also like to claim that it’s racist. Hmmm. Jezebel’s points out that birth ratios in the United States as a whole hover around the normal ratio of 105 boys to 100 girls. As Mara Hvistendahl points out in her excellent book ” Unnatural Selection,” birth ratios for Asian-Americans of varying socioeconomic statuses and citizenship status (both citizens and recent immigrants) have skewed sex ratios that get only worse with subsequent pregnancies, a sign that women will abort to have boys even away from China’s barbaric one-child policy. (I’m a great admirer of Hvistendahl’s book and her work, and I cite it only to make this one point, not to imply that she would support PRENDA.)

Aside from the obvious sexism inherent in sex-selective abortion, there is a huge sexism problem in a culture that encourages women to put their bodies through the rigors of four or five months of pregnancy only to expect them to terminate that pregnancy if the baby has the wrong genitals. It’s a cultural issue, not a race issue, and it’s irresponsible to hide behind charges of racism to protect such sexism.

It’s worth pointing out that sex-selective abortions are, by nature, late-term abortions. You can’t find out the gender of a fetus until 18 to 20 weeks, if then. Perfectly healthy children that are nearing viability are being aborted because of sexism. At the end of the day, that’s the most important thing. Maybe PRENDA isn’t perfect legislation. But instead of lobbing clichéd charges at its supporters, try to find some common ground to come up with something better.

Rachael Larimore is Slate’s managing editor.

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