Why abortion rate among Asian-American women is so high

Why Abortion Rate Among Asian-American Women Is So High

Photo credit: Derek Lieu

Hyphen Magazine News Feature/
New America Media
By Lisa Wong Macabasco

(Editor’s note: The following is the first of a two-part story that examines the high number of abortions among Asian-American women and why several women use their right to choose, often a result of cultural upbringings.)

One day five years ago, Kuping Pan’s 28-year-old daughter, Christine, came home wearing a quizzical expression. Christine had just visited a Vietnamese fortune-teller who looked deep into her face and proclaimed: Your mother has five children.

Christine was puzzled. She knew her mother had been pregnant four times: with her older sister, her younger brother, herself and a subsequent pregnancy that ended in an abortion.

“So I told her the story,” Pan says.

Pan had had two abortions. The one her daughter knew about happened around 1979. The other one happened nine years earlier, in Pan’s hometown of Taipei, Taiwan, when Pan was 23. Her then-boyfriend (later husband) had just left for graduate school in Kansas, and she had recently graduated from college.

Abortions are generally accepted in Taiwan, where the procedure became legal in 1985, due in part to the stigma associated with unwed motherhood.

“In Taiwan, if you’re unmarried with a baby, you cannot have your head up,” Pan says, observing a fact that has persisted even in recent years. “It’s a big issue to us. It’s better to have an abortion than to be an unmarried mother.”

Pan’s parents, both medical doctors and devout Christians, were disappointed but not enraged and swiftly arranged the abortion procedure.

“In Taiwan, in church, we don’t talk about abortion [being] wrong,” Pan says. “I never had the impression that abortion is some big thing and you’re not supposed to do it. It’s not a touchy topic. … People say ‘just go and do it.’ ”

Pan, now 62 and living in Thousand Oaks, California, never second-guessed her decision.

“It was not an appropriate time for me to be a mother,” she says matter-of-factly. “I never feel ashamed or [regretful] or anything.” It was such a minor footnote in her life, from a different era and country, that she didn’t think to tell her children about it.

Pan’s confident and almost nonchalant attitude about abortion resonates in the Asian-American community, whose abortion rate rose 11 percent in the 1990s while rates fell for all other racial and ethnic groups.

While the decision to abort still involves emotional wrangling and not all who have made it are eager to discuss it, many Asian-American women accept that the procedure may be necessary and prudent. Amid barbed national debates about abortion access — and despite religious ties, intergenerational communication gaps and taboos regarding sex (particularly premarital sex) — Asian-American women are standing assertively behind their choices, and behind other women’s right to make that choice.

Women have had abortions for as long as they have had children. In fact, the oldest known medical text containing abortion techniques appeared in China over 4,700 years ago. Today, support for abortion is strong among Asian-American women, even as it has recently waned in the American population at large. The National Asian Women’s Health Organization found that nearly 70 percent of Asian-American women back the decision to abort; 90 percent support it in cases of rape or incest.

As support for abortion has risen, so has the rate at which Asian-American women undergo the procedure. In 2000, about 35 percent of Asian-American pregnancies ended in abortion, the second highest rate for all racial and ethnic groups behind blacks, and almost double the 18 percent rate for whites. In 2007, the most recent year statistics were available, 13,488 Asian Americans went to Planned Parenthood for abortions nationwide, and 5,494 did so in California alone.

Asian Americans are at risk for unintended pregnancies in part because their knowledge about sex remains pitifully low (which is curious, considering that Asian-American teens start having sex later than other American teens). Clifford Yee, youth program coordinator at Asian Health Services in Oakland, California, has been asked whether douching with Mountain Dew prevents pregnancy. Some women who participated in the California Young Women’s Collaborative, a sexual health program for college-aged Asian-American women, were so enthused to finally learn about the subject that they hung speculums, a medical examination tool, on their dorm walls. A few were so inexperienced that they didn’t know what the withdrawal method was the program’s former research director Amy Lam says.

Unawareness about sexual health combines with risky contraception practices. The withdrawal method has been popular among Asian-American women, who tend to eschew both hormonal birth control and consistent condom use.

“Lack of information for both parents and youth, paired up with lack of knowledge about local clinical resources, leads to unintended pregnancy” among Asian-American women,” Yee says. “They think they can have unprotected sex and not get pregnant. They don’t know that much about birth control and don’t know where to go to get it. It’s very typical.”

And pregnancy is just one possible outcome: Among women of all racial and ethnic groups, Asian-American women have experienced the highest rate of increase for certain sexually transmitted diseases like gonorrhea and chlamydia.

The problem begins at home, according to Lam, who has researched sexual behavior in the Asian-American community. “When you come from a culture where your family doesn’t talk about sex, how can you talk to your partner about safe sex when you don’t have that role model?”

Linked to this point is that old chestnut, the model minority myth: Asian parents refuse to think their well-mannered, studious children are having sex. Yee remembers one angry mother who found her 15-year-old’s birth control pills and still claimed her daughter was too young to be sexually active.

“There’s a little bit of stubbornness there,” Yee says. “Some parents truly don’t want to believe their child can be out there having sex.”

The children, too, internalize the parental expectations underlying that belief and go to great lengths — including abortion — to propagate the falsehood. Lam says, “In many Asian-American cultures, it’s not the abortion that’s taboo; that’s a white thing. Having sex is [what’s] taboo. Abortions are the strategies used to cover up that you’re having sex. At all costs, you’re not supposed to have sex.”

Pan recalls little about her abortion procedure, except that it was night, she heard metal tools, she was anesthetized and felt no pain.

In Taiwan, estimates of the yearly abortion rate approach or even exceed the birthrate, which was 191,000 last year. Between 30 and 50 percent of Taiwanese women have had an abortion.

Legalization of abortion has not been as controversial in Asia as in the West. Most countries from which Asian Americans commonly emigrate from have either legalized abortion (China and India, among others) or only leniently enforce bans (Japan and South Korea, for example).

Some like Dr. Olivia Hsia would trace Asian Americans’ liberal views of abortion back to Asia.

“One-fifth of the [Asian-American] population is Chinese, and China is all for abortions,” says Hsia, a family physician in Fremont, California, referring to China’s one-child policy and its other population control efforts. Hsia recalls a recent trip to Sichuan, China, where she was shocked that panda fetuses received round-the-clock nursing care. “To protect pandas more than human beings and encourage people to kill babies …,” she says. On that trip, Hsia was later impelled to print out scripture verses and distribute them at churches in order to discourage abortion.

A Hong Kong-born Christian who can quote the Bible prolifically, Hsia claims she was the near-victim of an abortion 57 years ago, when her parents doubted they could afford to raise a fourth child.

“A missionary told my father that children are gifts from God,” she says. The same principle now grounds her refusal to provide abortion services.

Hsia sees herself as one of few advocates for unborn children.

“There is a heartbeat and brain waves. All these things are features of an embryo. They have a life. Size should not determine whether they live or die. Should a toddler [be more entitled to live] than a 4-month-old fetus?”

She believes pregnancies should not be terminated even in cases of birth defect: “I’ve heard stories that people pray over their unborn child and end up delivering a healthy baby — the Lord heals,” Hsia says; or rape, “The child [should not be] doomed to die because of the sin of [the] father.” Acknowledging pro-choice arguments, Hsia says she too is in favor of choice: “The woman can choose the husband, where to live. But if you choose to kill another individual … you don’t have that choice. What about the choice of the unborn?”

Pan, on the other hand, is puzzled by and even dismissive of conservative attitudes toward abortion. While the U.S. debate often fixates on abortion as “killing a life,” Pan says, “In Taiwan, they have more concern for the mother. Maybe she’s not married [and] she’s not supposed to have a baby. That would be a shame to her family and to herself. So abortion is a very natural option.”

Pan’s second abortion took place after she moved to the United States. It was the consequence of an unintended pregnancy following the birth of her two daughters, prior to her son’s birth. This second abortion was an open secret among her children.

For Pan’s youngest child, Wesley, learning later about her first abortion changed his perception of his mother. In general, he says “it is hard to imagine your parents as once being your age and going through similar situations that you are going through.” But discovering this information “made me realize even more that she too is human and was once young and made mistakes,” says Wesley, who calls himself “very pro-choice.”

Pan feels positive about her decisions, though she concedes that things may be different for younger women. “When you get to this age, over 60, you should be pretty confident about your life. Don’t feel guilty for your own choice. You should be in control of your own body.”

Read Part 2 of this story in the Oct. 27 mini-mag issue of shades or the full piece at http://bit.ly/bF9wPD.

Lisa Wong Macabasco is Hyphen’s managing editor. She last wrote about parents’ reactions to the website MyMomIsAFob.com.

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One Response to “Why abortion rate among Asian-American women is so high”

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Asian-American women seek answers, solace in ‘pro choice vs. life’ decision « shades magazine - October 27, 2010

    […] Why abortion rate among Asian-American women is so high […]

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