To the cynic, the wrangling over a bill that would ban abortions based on the sex of a child is all about politics. Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona, the bill’s chief sponsor, admitted that was part of the GOP plan when he conceded before this week’s House vote that the measure would probably fail, but said, “I think we’re doing the right thing strategically” by forcing Democrats to vote against it.
And sure enough, after the White House explained the president’s opposition -- because it would hinder a woman’s rights and prove hazardous for doctors who perform abortions – Franks, on cue, labeled Obama “the abortion president.”
The measure in question, the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act (PRENDA), would punish doctors with up to five years in prison for performing abortions because parents are seeking a child of the other sex. It failed largely along party lines, though 20 Democrats voted for and seven Republicans against.
The way it was brought to the floor by House Republicans, under a suspension of normal rules that required it to earn a two-thirds majority vote, added to the criticism that it was just another attempt to restrict abortion rights and make opponents squirm in an election year. The GOP legislative agenda is full of bills with no chance of passing, to be used as campaign fodder to energize base voters and maybe swing some independents. Polls show the majority of Americans favor legalized abortions in most circumstances and don’t put it at the top of their concerns.
Yet abortion remains an emotional issue, particularly at the edge where late-term abortions and murky motives reside. Abortion-rights advocates lose some who may be comfortable with a woman’s right to choose but only as long as they believe it’s a choice made with serious and careful thought. While many sympathize with parents faced with health risks for mother or child, choosing to abort because the pink nursery is not what you had in mind sets up a moral choice so clear that anyone who isn’t repulsed at the notion seems heartless at the very least.
There is more than a little bluster in Franks’s assertion that his legislation would help fight “a war on unborn little girls.” The “war” analogy has lost its meaning from overuse. But sex-selective abortions aren’t some fantasy. In some Asian and Eastern European countries where a male child is prized, the practice is so common that it has skewed the gender balance and left a generation of lost and lonely men. It so far has not been a problem in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, though a few states are preparing for the possibility with proposed legislation.
But every right restricted brings a risk. When Ted Miller, communications director for NARAL Pro-Choice America, says of the proposed House legislation, “It’s completely out of touch with the country’s values and priorities,” is he thinking of state laws that force women seeking abortions to undergo invasive procedures?
Those rules bring doubts about the motives of the lawmakers, most of them male, who favor them. Is it about standing up for the rights of the unborn or the control and humiliation of women or both?
Banning abortions based on sex selection is something everyone can sign on to on principle. But how would that law be implemented? Would every woman seeking an abortion be forced to take a lie-detector test along with the often-required ultrasound, since few would admit sex selection is a motive? If the only reason a woman prefers a male child is because of pressure from a domineering partner, the law could be seen as a protection for her; but it could also be just another form of paternalism.
And if you believe life begins at conception, is any reason ever a worthy one? Though abortion may not be the issue at the top of voters’ lists, it is one that will continue to set up dilemmas that the heart and head can’t easily reconcile.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3