Legislation coming up for a House vote would make it a federal crime to carry out an abortion based on the gender of the fetus. The measure takes aim at the aborting of female fetuses, a practice more common to countries such India and China, where there is a strong preference for sons, but which is also thought to take place in this country.
The mainly Republican supporters of the bill characterized the vote as a sex-discrimination issue at a time when Democrats are accusing Republicans of waging a war on women. Abortion rights advocates argued that the bill exploits the problem of selective abortion to further limit a woman's right to choose.
The House Republican leadership brought the bill to the floor under a procedure requiring a two-thirds majority for passage, and the outcome was uncertain. To help assure passage, the authors removed a contentious provision of the bill that would have also banned abortions based on the race of the fetus.
Even if it passes the House, the measure faces a dim future in the Democratic-controlled Senate.
The legislation, sponsored by anti-abortion activist Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz., would make it a federal offense, subject to up to five years in prison, to perform, solicit funds to perform or coerce a woman into a sex-selection abortion. Bringing a woman into the country to obtain such an abortion would also be punishable by up to five years in prison.
"We are the only advanced country left in the world that still doesn't restrict sex-selection abortion in any way," said Franks, who has also collided with pro-choice groups recently over a bill he is pushing to ban abortions in the District of Columbia after 20 weeks of pregnancy. "This evil practice has now allowed thousands of little girls in America and millions of little girls across the world to be brutally dismembered."
Franks and others say there is evidence of sex-selection abortions in the United States among certain ethnic groups from countries where there is a traditional preference for sons. The bill notes that while the United States has no law against such abortions, countries such as India and China, where the practice has contributed to lopsided boy-girl ratios, have enacted bans on the practice.
Lawmakers "who recently have embraced contrived political rhetoric asserting that they are resisting a `war on women' must reflect on whether they now wish to be recorded as being defenders of the escalating war on baby girls," said National Right to Life Committee legislative director Douglas Johnson.
His group, in a letter to lawmakers, said there are credible estimates that 160 million women and girls are missing from the world due to sex selection.
But the Guttmacher Institute, an organization that favors abortion rights, said evidence of sex selection in the United States is limited and inconclusive. It said that while there is census data showing some evidence of son preference among Chinese-, Indian- and Korean-American families when older children are daughters, the overall U.S. sex ratio at birth in 2005 was 105 boys to 100 girls, "squarely within biologically normal parameters."
NARAL Pro-Choice America president Nancy Keenan said that while her group has long opposed "reproductive coercion," "the Franks bill exploits the very real problem of sex discrimination and gender inequity while failing to offer any genuine solutions that would eliminate disparities in health care access and information."
Marcia Greenberger, co-president of the National Women's Law Center, said the bill fosters discrimination by "subjecting women from certain racial and ethnic backgrounds to additional scrutiny about their decision to terminate a pregnancy."
"Doctors would be forced to police their patients, read their minds and conceal information from them," said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y.
With the focus on the economy, abortion and other social issues have not been in the spotlight this year. Still, Franks' D.C. bill and other bills on parental notification and eliminating funds for international family planning groups are working their way through the House, and last year the GOP-led House passed bills to deny funds to Planned Parenthood, effectively ban abortion coverage in state health-insurance exchanges and bar funds from being used by teaching health centers for training in abortion care. Those efforts died in the Senate.
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