WASHINGTON — Republicans long ago lost African-American voters. They are well on their way to losing Latinos. And if Trent Franks prevails, they may lose Asian-Americans, too.
The Arizona Republican’s latest anti-abortion salvo to be taken up by the House had a benign name — the Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act — and a premise with which just about everybody agrees: that a woman shouldn’t abort a fetus simply because she wants to have a boy rather than a girl.
The problem with Franks’ proposal is that it’s not entirely clear there is a problem. Sex-selection abortion is a huge tragedy in parts of Asia, but to the extent it’s happening in this country, it’s mostly among Asian immigrants.
For Franks, who previously tried to pass legislation limiting abortions among African-Americans and residents of the District of Columbia, it was the latest attempt to protect racial minorities from themselves.
“The practice of sex-selection abortion is demonstrably increasing here in the United States, especially but not exclusively in the Asian immigrant community,” he announced on the House floor Wednesday afternoon. He quoted a study finding that male births “for Chinese, Asian Indians and Koreans clearly exceeded biological variation.”
Democrats found Franks’ paternalism toward minority groups to be suspect. Rep. Barbara Lee of California, identifying herself as a member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, said the bill would “lead to further stigmatization of women, especially Asian Pacific American women.” Various Asian-American legal and women’s groups opposed the bill.
In an interview Wednesday afternoon, Franks didn’t dispute that Asian-Americans would be targeted. “The real target in the Asian community here is the Asian women who are being coerced into aborting little girls,” he told me, adding: “When the left doesn’t want to make abortion the issue, they say you’re being against minorities.”
Franks is a principled and consistent opponent of abortion, but his strategy has raised eyebrows before because of its racial component. In 2010, he said in a video interview that, because of abortion, “far more of the African-American community is being devastated by the policies of today than were being devastated by the policies of slavery.” (Franks told me this does not mean African-Americans were better off under slavery.)
In 2011, he championed the “Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act.” That proposal, similar to the one before the House on Wednesday, relied on the novel argument that African-American mothers were discriminating against their fetuses by aborting them on the basis of race.
More recently, Franks held hearings on a bill to prevent doctors in the District of Columbia — where minorities are the majority — from performing late-term abortions. Protesters picketed outside the Arizonan’s office asking whether “Mayor Franks” might help them with other local issues, such as potholes. Franks had blocked the District’s delegate in the House, Eleanor Holmes Norton, from testifying.
Franks admitted he had no expectation that his latest bill would pass (indeed, it failed in a Thursday vote), because House leaders brought it up in a way that required a two-thirds majority. The purpose, he said, was to force pro-abortion-rights Democrats to make an uncomfortable vote.
But in singling out minority groups to make his political points, Franks risks aggravating a long-term problem for the Republicans. According to primary exit polls, 90 percent of GOP voters this year have been white. It’s difficult in 2012 to win with such a statistic; over the coming decades, as minorities become the majority, it would relegate the party to irrelevance.
Franks, however, has enough difficulty keeping up with the day-to-day. His office called the House press gallery to say he would hold a news conference Wednesday morning, and an hour before the scheduled start time, an aide was still confirming the event. Reporters, photographers and TV camera crews arrived, but Franks was a no-show; his office said it had been postponed.
The debate on the House floor was brief but nasty. Rep. Christopher Smith, R-N.J., warned of a contagion spreading from Asia. “Today the three most dangerous words in China and India are ‘It’s a girl,’” he said. “We can’t let that happen here.”
Rep. Cliff Stearns, R-Fla., claimed that opponents were “positioning the United States as a safe haven for those who cannot legally acquire sex-selection abortion in their own home countries.”
Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott of Washington countered that the Republicans were setting up a straw man. “As I listen to this debate, I’m not sure if we’re talking about India or China,” he said.
Neither, Congressman. Just people who come from those places.
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.