Growing up in Arkansas, I was taught both overtly and covertly about the various ways women's lives are restricted. Though I had amazing teachers and parents who tried to counteract it, there was an ever-present message that women were only suitable for certain jobs, that they ought to care about the housework and cooking, that their first and only worthwhile goal in life was to become a mother. Mine was a churchy town, and men were regarded as the spiritual leaders of the home and community, which naturally left women bringing up the rear.
These days in Arkansas, though, lawmakers seem to believe there's only one threat to women and girls: mothers who want to abort them.
Last week, Governor Asa Hutchinson signed a bill prohibiting "sex-selection abortions," based on the vague and racist idea that Asian-American immigrants coming into the state might seek to abort daughters because that may or may not have happened in response to China's one-child policy. (The reasoning is vague and full of what-ifs and hypotheticals.)
To be clear, this is a solution in search of a problem: There's no evidence sex-selection abortion happens in the United States, in any community. And the bill's sponsor, a Republican in the State House of Representatives who works as an executive headhunter in the Fayetteville area in northwest Arkansas, acknowledged as much. In February, he called his legislation "largely a statement clarifying that what happens broadly in other places, for sure, is going to be illegal here."
Though Arkansas joins seven other states in banning sex-selection abortion, its law is particularly invasive. It requires doctors and medical professionals to ask women about their family and medical histories (including past pregnancy) and whether they know the sex of the child, effectively imposing a waiting period on the procedure. Abortion providers face up to a year in prison and a $2,500 fine if they violate it, which will likely have the effect of discouraging doctors from practicing in the state. The law could also encourage extra scrutiny of Asian-American women seeking abortions.
Of course, the law is in keeping with a broader hyper-conservative agenda in the state, which has had an increasingly powerful Republican Party since the 2012 elections ousted Democrats from power. Earlier this year, the state also banned a common second-trimester abortion procedure, and Arkansas is so staunchly anti-abortion that some Democrats voted for both of these bills along with the Republican majority. The man who sponsored the sex-selection abortion legislation, Charlie Collins, has also been a champion for many other super right-wing causes. Most notoriously, he supported a law two years ago that made it illegal for towns and cities in the state to pass ordinances protecting LGBTQ Arkansans from discrimination—his gay brother publicly opposed his actions, and the State Supreme Court has since blocked the measure. He was also a sponsor of a recent controversial bill allowing concealed-carry firearms on college campuses.
Now Collins seems to be trying to portray himself as a champion for women. In citing a gender imbalance in China as a reason for the need for a law against sex-selection abortions here, he left untouched why parents in any country might prefer to have a boy: centuries-old inheritance systems, proscribed roles for women that kept them in a home, and more modern job discrimination that made it impossible for a girl to have equal opportunities in life.
Check out Broadly's interview with Wendy Davis, a champion of abortion rights in Texas.
We have similar histories in the United States, but listening to Republicans in America right now, you might think the days of gender discrimination were over. President Donald Trump is dismantling protections for women in the workplace, and has dismissed the idea that there is a gender-pay gap at all, along with much of the rest of right-wing media. If women are paid less than men, in this view, it's simply because they're bad negotiators, or they've made choices for different careers, as if choices are made in a vacuum. These arguments were brandished when another Arkansas state legislator, Fredrick J. Love, a Democrat from Little Rock, introduced an equal pay bill in the state earlier this year. The bill would have made it illegal for employers to ask job applicants about their previous level of pay, and also would have shifted the burden to them to prove they didn't discriminate based on gender in any lawsuit.
Love's bill was voted down in committee last month, though he told me he will continue working on this issue.
If this isn't an easier country to live in for men, if women have the same opportunities and the same life potential as men do, why would we even need to worry about parents choosing boys over girls? It's true that, overall, Americans still say they'd prefer to have a son over a daughter, just as they did in the 1940s. A 2011 Gallup poll found, however, that men were the driving force for this preference—they strongly preferred to have a boy, and women just didn't care. Additionally, conservatives were more likely than liberals to have a gender preference. So it seems safe to assume that a pro-choice woman who supports abortion rights might be the least likely of anyone to choose to abort just because she was having a girl.
But the point of opposing abortion is, of course, to remind women that they're a little bit lesser. That they don't have the freedom to direct their own course, they can't be the authors of their own story, and, more than anything, they can't not have children if God wills it. Her salvation lies in becoming a mother. Laws against "sex-selection abortion" are just the latest, creative way to oppress women—only this time with a faux-feminist sheen.
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