October 22, 2021

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Reproductive justice advocates can’t afford to ignore how abortion bans affect Asian Americans


Although detailed data of Asian American abortion rates in Texas aren’t readily available, a series of studies in New York City—which is also home to a large Asian American population—found that roughly one-fifth of pregnant Asian Americans may seek an abortion, a rate comparable to that of non-Hispanic white Americans. Other studies suggest that this may be an underestimate; the Center for American Progress contends that as many as one-third of pregnancies in the Asian American community may end in abortion. Notably, the Asian American community is the only racial community in which abortion usage hasn’t decreased in the last 15 years, and abortion rates vary widely by patient ethnicity and immigration status. Among Indian people, for example, the abortion rate is as much as three times the average for the Asian American community at large. Similarly, abortion rates are on average 1.5 times higher for U.S.-born Asian Americans compared to foreign-born Asian Americans, even while the abortion rate has doubled among Asian immigrants in New York City.

Some experts suggest the lower rates of health care coverage among Asian Americans, language barriers that limit health care access, cultural stigmas that hinder conversations on sexual health, and underutilization of early prenatal and contraceptive care can drive persistent gaps in sexual education among some segments of the Asian American population. This in turn contributes to higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases and unplanned pregnancy that drive these patients to seek out sexual and reproductive care, including abortion services.

Demonized then rendered invisible

While attempts at passing near-total abortion bans like “fetal heartbeat” bills in 11 states have mostly been blocked by court order, Texas’ SB 8 is the first to protect the state government from court injunction by empowering private citizens—not the state—with enforcement of the ban through vigilante harassment and lawsuits. In a climate already rife with anti-Asian hatred and racial intolerance, SB 8 will exacerbate the threat of racial harassment and violence for Asian Americans and other people of color in need of abortion care in Texas.

Anti-abortion proponents have already used racist caricatures of Asian Americans as red herrings in their efforts to pass anti-abortion laws through state action, such as prohibitions against sex-selective abortion. These laws were ostensibly designed to prevent pregnant people from seeking an abortion based on the apparent sex of the fetus, a practice that the laws’ supporters argue is commonplace in East and South Asia; in practice, they stigmatize abortions—particularly for Asian Americans—and add additional layers of bureaucracy to further discourage pregnant people from receiving abortion care. Supporters of sex-selective abortion bans invoked anti-Asian xenophobia in arguing that state legislation is needed to protect America from the misogynistic influence of Asian immigrants. This brutal and violent spectre of Asian influence was so commonly used that one law review author explored how such abortion bans were also being advanced as an effort to discourage and curtail immigration by demonizing Asian immigrants.

Further, Asian American people have been among the first to be targeted by feticide laws originally designed to protect pregnant victims from domestic violence, but which have recently been co-opted in some states to prosecute those who obtain an abortion or miscarry their pregnancies. In Indiana, Chinese American Bei Bei Shuai was the first person in the state’s history to be charged with murder and attempted feticide after a failed suicide attempt in 2011 resulted in a miscarriage. Just a few years later, 33-year-old Purvi Patel faced a 20-year sentence for the termination of her pregnancy by what prosecutors argued was an abortion, even though she claimed she suffered a miscarriage. That sentence was eventually overturned by the Indiana Court of Appeals.

These and other stories are clear evidence of the impact the anti-abortion movement has already had in criminalizing Asian Americans and their pregnancy outcomes. In an op-ed published in The Washington Post, former Executive Director of the National Asian Pacific Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) Miriam Yeung described these laws as a coordinated effort to limit abortion rights by criminalizing pregnant Asian American immigrants. “Feticide laws, sex-selective abortion bans, and similar legislation need to be seen for what they are—proverbial wolves in sheep’s clothing,” Yeung wrote. 

Disregarded in the broader movement

Unfortunately, Asian Americans have been otherwise rendered largely invisible in the discourse surrounding reproductive rights. In 1989, Dr. Laurie Nsiah-Jefferson concisely addressed the problem as one in which demographic data flattened the experiences of nonwhite pregnant people by presenting them under a single umbrella, “as if there were only two racial groups, white and nonwhite.” Nearly 30 years later, studies still routinely fail to consider Asian American patients and their reliance on reproductive health services. The overall impact of restrictive abortion laws on the rights of Asian Americans is chronically disregarded, the distinct effect of these restrictions on individual Asian American ethnic groups is largely unknown, and Asian Americans are left out of the reproductive justice conversation, even among larger progressive movements.

While anti-abortion activists have unsurprisingly ignored the importance of abortion access for people of color, even supporters of abortion have historically excluded their voices, including those of Asian Americans. In the mid-1990s, a group of mostly white women were invited by the Clinton administration to consider proposed health care reforms that would include expanded reproductive health care access. The few Black feminists who were invited to attend were discouraged to find that this effort failed to consider the unique challenges that people of color face in accessing reproductive health care. Together, they created the Women of African Descent for Reproductive Justice, which launched the modern reproductive justice movement. Soon after, the group expanded to become SisterSong, a multiracial coalition of reproductive justice groups that included Asian American feminists alongside Black, Latinx, and Native activists—all committed to applying an intersectional framework to the reproductive rights movement. Among these groups was the Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice—now known as Forward Together—which still centers the multifaceted impact of reproductive rights for Asian Americans.

Despite this, mainstream advocacy for reproductive rights and health care continues to overlook both the impacts on—and the activism by—people of color. A study by the National Committee for Responsible Philanthropy recently reported that the top 20 recipients of reproductive rights funding go to predominantly white organizations. For Asian American people, exclusion from the larger reproductive rights debate often comes in the form of deeply ingrained model minority stereotypes that suggest that Asian Americans are neither users of abortion services nor politically engaged in the reproductive justice movement; both misconceptions leave Asian American-led efforts underresourced and invisible.

“It’s been a fight to get [philanthropy] to fund us in a way that they fund some of the larger mainstream groups,” former Executive Director of Forward Together and activist Eveline Shen said in an interview last month.

Creating their own seat at the table

According to Asian American advocates, the vast majority of Asian Americans support the legal right to abortion access. Their persistent exclusion from the fight for better reproductive rights and abortion access is a missed opportunity for the broader reproductive justice movement, but rather than waiting for acknowledgment from other activists, Asian American advocacy groups have wasted no time in advancing their own initiatives.

Asian American advocacy groups such as the NAPAWF—founded in 1996 to amplify the stories and issues of Asian American and Pacific Islanders who identify as female—continue to be vocal in pressing the issue of reproductive rights for and within the Asian American community. NAPAWF has challenged the racist rhetoric presented alongside sex-selective abortion bans in multiple states and in fighting the criminalization of pregnancy. Earlier this year, NAPAWF partnered with ten other Asian American advocacy organizations to issue a comprehensive reproductive justice agenda presenting an intersectional framework for advancing reproductive justice alongside the need for systemic policy changes to address racial injustice, economic oppression, U.S. militarism, and immigration reform, among other key issues. In Texas, NAPAWF is one of several Asian American reproductive justice groups that are rolling up their sleeves to join the fight to overturn SB 8 and protect abortion access for Asian Americans and other marginalized people in the state.

“Asian American and Pacific Islander women are angry and tired of the long-standing efforts to restrict reproductive and abortion access,” NAPAWF Executive Director Sung Yeon Choimorrow said in a statement. “NAPAWF will continue fighting until all AAPI women have complete access to the health care they need.”

As part of this work, NAPAWF recently launched a new chapter in Texas to push for greater inclusion of Asian American voices in the fight for reproductive rights in the state. Beyond addressing the immediate impact of SB 8, Asian American reproductive justice groups like NAPAWF and others are worried about the broader impact of anti-abortion laws on Asian Americans’ lives in Texas and across the country. Among their concerns are how anti-abortion laws based on xenophobic rhetoric will contribute to ongoing anti-Asian racism and violence, which NAPAWF has found already disproportionately targets Asian American women.

“For Asian American and Pacific Islanders, a reproductive justice framework acknowledges the diversity within our community and ensures that different aspects of our identity … are considered in tandem when addressing our social, economic, and health needs,” NAPAWF declared in their 2017 reproductive justice agenda. “The experiences and difficulties that an AAPI woman encounters are as diverse as the community itself.”

Asian American activists have been part of the reproductive justice movement since its inception. The Texas ban is part of a long history in which Asian Americans have disproportionately suffered the consequences of anti-abortion efforts. Their work persists despite racist anti-Asian rhetoric by anti-abortion activists, as well as the frustrating and ongoing sidelining of Asian American voices from mainstream reproductive rights organizing. While Black, Indigenous, and other people of color continue to work in concert with Asian Americans, the movement for reproductive justice won’t succeed without actively embracing their efforts.

“All oppressions impact our reproductive lives,” says SisterSong. “The intersectionality of reproductive justice is both an opportunity and a call to come together as one movement with the power to win freedom for all oppressed people.

Jenn Fang is a proud Asian American feminist, scientist, and nerd who currently blogs at Reappropriate.co, one of the web’s oldest AAPI feminist and race activist blogs. Follow her on Twitter @Reappropriate.

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