On Friday, a new policy to stop pregnant women from traveling to the U.S. for “birth tourism” will go into effect. Consular officers can now deny visitor visas to women who they have “reason to believe” will give birth in America in order to get their child U.S. citizenship.
The policy is already controversial because it gives officers, who are not medical experts, broad discretion to determine whether or not someone is pregnant. If an officer thinks a woman is likely to have a baby in the U.S., they can automatically conclude that a person’s “primary purpose” for travel is birth tourism, and prevent them from entering the country.
Women’s health advocates and experts said the rule is a blatant attempt to control women and that it could prevent expecting mothers from receiving life-saving medical care.
“It’s hugely discriminatory and also is putting women’s lives at risk,” said Nora Ellmann, a research associate for women’s health and rights at the Center for American Progress. “The rule is positioning pregnant women as a national security threat.”
The Trump administration has a history of stomping on reproductive rights, especially regarding women of color. While Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) largely stopped detaining pregnant women under a President Barack Obama directive, Trump reversed that order and the number of expecting mothers in detention has jumped by 52% since he took office. Scott Lloyd, the former director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), blocked pregnant immigrant teenagers in ORR custody from getting abortions, and allegedly tracked their menstrual cycles. And Trump has talked about using an executive order to end birthright citizenship, to stop immigrants from having what he calls “anchor babies.”
“The rule is positioning pregnant women as a national security threat.”
The topic of “birth tourism” recently made headlines after a woman traveling from Hong Kong to Saipan, a United States territory in the Pacific, was forced to take a pregnancy test before boarding the flight. She had to sign a medical release form that said she had “a body size/shape resembling to a [sic] pregnant lady,” according to a blog post the woman wrote. Though there are no credible statistics on how widespread birth tourism is, media coverage usually focuses on women from China and Russia.
The new policy does not apply to the 39 countries whose citizens can travel to the U.S. without a visa — like France, Ireland and New Zealand — and it’s unclear how it will work for foreign travelers from other countries.
In an email to HuffPost, a State Department spokesperson said officers would only raise the topic of pregnancy if “they had a specific articulable reason to believe a visa applicant may be pregnant and planning to give birth in the United States.” The spokesperson did not answer HuffPost’s question about how an officer would determine whether or not someone is pregnant, how far along they are, and if a medical professional would be involved in a screening.
Women’s health advocates worry the dystopian process will involve an officer behind a glass window sizing up a woman’s body, which could result in discrimination based on gender, age and size.
“It’s clearly a huge violation of a woman’s privacy and dignity,” said Sung Yeon Choimorrow, the executive director of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum. “There is so much room for subjectiveness in this. What types of questions are you going to ask? The whole thing is just so absurd.”
The rule also makes the false assumption that pregnant women only travel to give birth in another country, when they might be going overseas for business or vacation, Choimorrow added.
Even more concerning is that an officer with no medical background now has the power to decide if someone is pregnant and if they deserve medical treatment in the U.S., said Dr. Carolyn Sufrin, an obstetrician-gynecologist who teaches at Johns Hopkins University. “It’s just completely outside of the realm of what they can and should be doing.”
Though the rule specifies that pregnant women seeking medical treatment in the U.S. can be granted visas if they have the means to pay for their medical bills, the policy also states that pregnant women have to prove, “to the satisfaction of a consular officer,” that they have a “legitimate reason” for seeing an American doctor. This phrasing leaves serious, potentially life-saving decisions up to people with no medical background, according to Ellmann.
“They may say, ‘Well, we don’t think that’s a sufficient basis, because you can get the treatment, which may or may not be that good, right outside of the United States,’” said Jeffrey Gorsky, a lawyer who worked in the State Department’s visa office for 36 years.
Dr. Sufrin said that even if the State Department does plan to involve medical professionals, it would be highly unethical for any doctor to be involved in a process that denies medical care to someone based on factors such as their nationality, citizenship status, or for any other reason.
Gorsky said the rule seems extremely hard to implement, especially given the fact that women interested in “birth tourism” can apply for long-term travel visas years before they are pregnant. He thinks the new policy is more symbolic than practical ― a muscle flex for Trump’s anti-immigration base.
“I think the political motivations are what’s driving this,” he said. “This administration does not have a record of caring for the needs of people who are not U.S. citizens.”