South Dakota Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed a bill Wednesday to punish any physician in the state who is found to perform sex-selective abortions, or an abortion that’s chosen based on the gender of the fetus—a practice that reproductive rights advocates say is not a concern in the state.
Under HB 1162, physicians who provide abortions will be required to ask women seeking an abortion a series of questions to determine if sex selection is a factor in their decision. While the bill imposes no penalty on women seeking an abortion based on the gender of the fetus, abortion providers could face a Class 6 felony, which carries up to a $4,000 fine and two years in prison.
Jen Aulwes, a spokesperson at Planned Parenthood Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, said the organization’s clinic in Sioux Falls, which is the only abortion provider in the state, is not seeing patients seeking to terminate pregnancies based on the sex of the fetus. “This bill is a solution in search of a problem that does not exist,” she told RH Reality Check.
The legislation passed through the legislature with little opposition or discussion; the floor debate in the house was characterized by Rep. Paula Hawks (D-Hartford) as a “railroad discussion.” The bill was passed first by the house with a 60-10 vote, and then through the senate with a 30-5 vote.
During hearings about the legislation, bill proponents repeatedly brought up the supposed role that race and ethnicity play in sex-selective abortions.
During her testimony in the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Jenna Haggar (R-Sioux Falls), who introduced HB 1162, cited worldwide disparities in gender ratios, noting that such discrepancies are especially prevalent in “certain countries in Asia.”
“Let me tell you, our population in South Dakota is a lot more diverse than it ever was. There are cultures that look at a sex-selection abortion as being culturally okay,” said Sen. Don Haggar (R-Sioux Falls) during the senate floor debate.
Spencer Cody, vice president of South Dakota Right to Life, also testified, claiming that sex-selective abortion has become “a South Dakota problem.” However, Cody told Mother Jones that there is no “hard data” on the number of sex-selection abortions that are performed, and that “the question, if this [ban] would actually affect any South Dakotans, is one we can’t answer yet.”
Two studies have often been cited as proof that sex-selective abortions are a problem in the United States, specifically within immigrant communities of Southeast Asian descent. The studies used 2000 Census data, and found disparate sex-ratios among families with Chinese, Indian, and Korean ancestry. A 2012 Guttmacher Institute report written by Sneha Barot notes that the studies do not pinpoint the cause of the disparity, which could be “pre-pregnancy techniques involving fertility treatments or sex-selective abortions.” There is no data on the effect of the sex-selective abortion bans that have been passed in recent years, and no data on the effects of the bans that passed in Illinois and Pennsylvania, in 1975 and 1982, respectively.
Barot notes that attempts to enforce sex-selective laws “would only perpetuate further discrimination in … communities through stereotyping and racial profiling of Asian women whose motivations for an abortion would be under suspicion.” The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum has characterized this type of legislation as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”
The legislation’s proponents also say it was designed to prevent gender discrimination—something Planned Parenthood’s Jen Aulwes says the group is already opposed to.
“We don’t believe that this bill will accomplish anything to end gender bias,” said Aulwes. “We urge leaders to challenge the underlying conditions that lead to these types of beliefs and practices in the first place.”
Abbie Peterson, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice South Dakota, which opposed the legislation, told RH Reality Check that the law will just add to the list of questions South Dakota women must answer during the “interrogation” they must undergo when seeking an abortion. Peterson said the intent of the legislation is to target abortion providers with an increasingly stringent regulatory regime. “This is about creating the right number of restrictions and creating a hostile environment [for providers], so that they will not operate in the state,” she said.
With Gov. Daugaard’s signature, HB 1162 makes South Dakota the seventh state to ban sex-selective abortions. The number of states introducing and passing laws banning sex-selective abortions has increased in the last few years, with more than 60 pieces of legislation introduced since 2009. (Arizona sex-selective abortion is currently being challenged.)