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Double Issue: 9.1-9.2: Fall 2010 / Spring 2011
Guest Edited by Rebecca Jordan-Young
Critical Conceptions: Technology, Justice, and the Global Reproductive Market

The Latest Case of Reproductive Carrots and Sticks: Race, Abortion and Sex Selection

A Response by Sujatha Jesudason

This article is a response to Michele Bratcher Goodwin's "Reproductive Carrots and Sticks" in this issue.

In documenting the different ways reproductive freedom translates across race, class and gender, Michele Goodwin argues that the new fetal drug laws (FDLs) are a punitive and punishing strategy for regulating some women's reproduction. Like Dorothy Roberts, she argues that this regulation is deeply embedded in reproductive hierarchies that have been a part of American politics and society since the days of slavery.[1] While Goodwin contrasts the reproductive punishment of FDLs with the supposed reproductive freedoms of assisted reproductive technologies, a new tactic is being employed, alluding to old eugenic fears and raising new fears of "designer babies," to argue for banning abortion based on sex selection and race. This attempt to regulate sex selection is a foreshadow for emerging attempts to regulate assisted reproductive technologies.

In this "Reproductive Stick 2.0," anti-choice advocates are seeking to outlaw sex-selective, and what they call, "race-selective" abortions. This tactic first emerged in 2008, when Representative Trent Franks (R-AZ) proposed the "Susan B. Anthony Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2008," which he re-introduced the following year as the "Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act of 2009." Citing opposition to race and gender discrimination, race-based violence, and the United Nation's Commission on the Status of Women, the bill purports to "prohibit discrimination against the unborn on the basis of sex or race, and for other purposes." The bill stated that sex selective abortions in the United States "have the effect of diminishing the representation of women in the American population, and therefore, the American electorate," and that the high rates of abortion among African American women amounts to "race selective abortion" and has the effect of diminishing the number of minorities in society.

Reproductive health care providers and abortion providers, like Planned Parenthood of America, are the ostensible targets of this proposed Act. The legislation would punish, by fine and/or imprisonment, anyone who "knowingly" performs an abortion with information that it is being sought based on the sex or race of the child or parent; anyone who uses force or the threat of force to intentionally injure or intimidate any person for the purpose of coercing a sex-selection or race-selection abortion, or attempts to do so; or anyone who solicits or accepts funds for the purpose of financing a sex-selection abortion or race-selection abortion.[2]

Black Children are and Endangered Species billboard
"Black Children are and Endangered Species" billboard

While this federal legislation didn't advance in Congress, 2010 saw a proliferation of similar legislation in five states—Georgia, Arizona, Mississippi, New Jersey and Idaho, along with legislation against sex selective abortions in Michigan, Minnesota, Oklahoma and West Virginia. In Georgia, the race component of the legislation was highlighted with a provocative series of billboards in Atlanta proclaiming, "Black Children Are an Endangered Species." The billboards directed viewers to a website hosted by the Radiance Foundation and funded by Georgia Right to Life, the primary proponent of the legislation. Featuring the striking image of a frightened young black boy, with the words "Black and Unwanted" above his face, this billboard campaign tapped into powerful fears about historical and current medical mistreatment and eugenic campaigns against Black Americans.

Leveraging a collective sense of shame, unease and outrage over "missing girls" and racist eugenics, this legislation and campaign is emerging as the latest tactic of the anti-abortion movement to regulate the reproductive lives of women of color and limit access to abortion for all women. Similar to FDLs, the proponents of this legislation tap into deep emotions and claim to be protecting and saving babies, in this case Black and Asian babies. Likewise, they seek to punish providers of reproductive health services. And like FDLs, these legislative efforts are under-inclusive. In the case of sex selection, they don't include pre-pregnancy sex selection such as sperm sorting technology or embryo testing in vitro, two techniques that are more expensive and offered in fertility clinics. In terms of race and selection, they are also under-inclusive in that they don't include the racialized marketing and screening of sperm and egg donors, both of which are ubiquitous and unapologetic in the use of race as a criteria for selection.

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