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Strong Asian American Support For Abortion Rights Tests Republicans In Orange County House Races

An Asian American woman wearing sunglasses and a pink shirt that says "Silence Is Not An Option" holds up a sign that reads "Keep Abortion Legal."
Priscilla Huang attends a "Bans Off Abortion" rally in Santa Ana on May 14, organized by the local Planned Parenthood affiliate.
(Courtesy of Priscilla Huang)
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The Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade is shifting the political calculus around the country, including in two Orange County congressional districts with significant Asian American populations.

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Strong Asian American Support For Abortion Rights Tests Republicans In OC House Races

An energized Democratic Party is hoping the seismic decision will draw to the polls large numbers of Asian Americans, who as a group register strong support for abortion rights.

A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in May found about three-quarters of Asian respondents said abortion should be legal, the most of any racial group.

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Democrats want to turn that support into wins in two newly-drawn Orange County districts: the 40th and the 45th. All the candidates are Asian American, and both races pit Republican members of Congress who want to severely restrict abortion rights against Democratic challengers who say government should stay out of a woman’s medical decisions.

A map of the 40th congressional district in California, with cities shaded in red, green and blue.
The newly-drawn 40th Congressional district.
(2020 California Citizens Redistricting Commission)

40th District

Democrat Asif Mahmood, a physician, is facing freshman Republican Rep. Young Kim.

After last year’s redistricting, Kim chose to seek re-election in the newly-drawn 40th, which mostly sits in eastern Orange County and includes Mission Viejo and Yorba Linda.

The voting-age population is nearly one-fifth Asian American. Republicans lead Democrats in voter registrations by 5%.

A map of the 45th congressional district in California, with cities shaded in red, green and blue.
The newly-drawn 45th Congressional district.
(2020 California Citizens Redistricting Commission)

45th District

Democrat Jay Chen, an officer in the Naval Reserves who owns a local real estate firm, is challenging Republican Rep. Michelle Steel.

A freshman member like Kim, Steel decided to seek a different House seat after redistricting. The new 45th District includes cities in Steel’s current district such as Westminster and Garden Grove, both part of Little Saigon. The voting-age population is more than one-third Asian American. Democrats have a 3% edge in voter registrations over Republicans.

The Candidates' Positions On Abortion

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Chen and Mahmood are openly touting their support of abortion rights. Steel and Kim are trying to stay away from the issue.

In response to our questions, Steel and Kim described themselves as “pro-life” but said they would make exceptions in cases of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is at risk.

“As someone who struggled to get pregnant, I believe all life is a gift,” Steel said in an email.

Steel signed an amicus brief that urged the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. Steel and Kim voted against legislation to codify the right to an abortion and the right to contraception. The anti-abortion rights group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America graded Steel with an “A+” and gave Kim an “A.”

The Democrats point out that while abortion is still legal in California, that could change if Republicans retake control of Congress and the White House.

“We know what the Republican majority in the House would pursue,” said Chen. “They've made that clear: a federal ban on abortion. That is in the cards. That's what they want.”

Steel is one of nearly 170 House members to co-sponsor the Life at Conception Act, which would grant “equal protection for the right to life” under the 14th Amendment to “each born and preborn human person.” Democrats and some legal experts contend the bill would effectively implement a national ban on abortion.

Steel did not agree to an interview for this story but answered several questions by e-mail.

Asked whether she supports a national ban, she said “discussions surrounding a nationwide ban on abortion are purely hypothetical at this point.”

Kim — who also declined an interview and took questions via email — did not respond to the question about whether she supports a federal ban. She stressed her support for maternal health, pointing to an act she co-sponsored to improve the screening and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders during pregnancy.

Democrats Are Pouring Resources Into OC Races

Mahmood said abortion is eclipsing the economy in importance to voters, especially with prices falling at the gas pump.

“This is going to be a top issue, by all means, without anything coming a distant second,” he said. “People don’t want to sacrifice the rights they have struggled for.”

“I'm all about protecting these rights [to abortion],” Chen said. “It's just incredible to me that little girls today will have fewer rights than what their grandmothers grew up with.”

The political arm of the House Democrats is pouring more resources into the Orange County races, running a digital ad on streaming platforms targeting voters in the districts. It features Asian American actors as a loving couple living in an unnamed state. The wife dies because she can’t access an abortion.

The Supreme Court’s ruling confirmed Priscilla Huang’s worst fears about the rollback of abortion rights. She credits the life she has today to the abortion she got nearly 20 years ago.

“I was applying to law school at the time,” said Huang. “I was 22 years old and just wasn't ready."

Huang would go on to become a lawyer advocating for better abortion access for low-income and immigrant women, and later, a mom to two kids. Now the Aliso Viejo resident works with the Planned Parenthood affiliate for Orange and San Bernardino counties, serving as a board member of its political arm.

Huang, who is Taiwanese American, said she feels incredible urgency to get out the vote in a post-Roe world.

“It's galvanized a lot of folks to try to do as much as we can, as quickly as we can,” said Huang, who also leads an advocacy organization for Asian Americans.

Two Asian American women wear black shirts at a rally for abortion rights. People in the background hold signs that read "Repro Rights are Human Rights."
Susan Lew (l.) and Priscilla Huang (r.) attend a rally on June 24 in response to the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. Both are board members of the action arm of Planned Parenthood of San Bernardino and Orange Counties, and leaders of the AAPI Leadership Council.
(Photo courtesy of Priscilla Huang)

Roe’s reversal appears to be buoying Democrats’ midterm prospects based on early electoral tests. Last week in New York’s Hudson Valley, Democrat Pat Ryan won a Congressional seat in a special election after focusing on abortion access in his campaign.

Ryan’s win came a few weeks after Kansas voters crushingly defeated a referendum to strip abortion rights from their state Constitution, by a margin of 59% to 41%.

Why Republicans Are Avoiding The Abortion Issue

Steel and Kim’s avoidance of the abortion issue is “smart,” said sociologist Bohsiu Wu, associate dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Cal State, Northridge.

Wu has researched Asian American views on abortion and said many see access as a part of health care and family planning. Favorable views on abortion rights are linked to factors such as education, income and geography, he said.

While Asian Americans who oppose abortion are in the minority, Wu’s research shows those conservative views are more prevalent among certain ethnic groups. Filipinos and Vietnamese respondents disapproved of abortion at higher rates, which Wu attributes to religious views.

“Especially with the first generation and second generation, there's a significant proportion of Catholics, so Catholicism plays an important role,” he said.

This may be a factor in the race between Michelle Steel and Jay Chen for the 45th District which includes multiple cities that form Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese community outside Vietnam.

A Vietnamese American woman and a girl in formal outfits pose for the camera.
Nancy Phan, founder of Viet Respect Life, poses with a relative.
(Courtesy of Nancy Phan)

Voters' Viewpoints

“In my generation, if someone had an abortion, they would hide it until they die,” said Nancy Phan, a retired postal worker who operates a Little Saigon nonprofit called Viet Respect Life.

The group counsels pregnant Vietnamese Americans and discourages them from getting abortions.

Phan, who meets with women in her Fountain Valley office, said the group has "saved close to 600 lives" since she began her work in the 1990's but acknowledged not everyone takes her advice. She said she suspects her own three adult daughters disagree with her views.

“What can we do?,” Phan asked. “They are influenced by media, and schools and colleges.”

More than a dozen volunteers with a group called Viet Respect Life pose with in front of table with two clergy members.
Members of Viet Respect Life receive recognition from the Diocese of Orange and the Bishop Kevin Vann for their work.
(Courtesy of Nancy Phan)

Joanna Pham, Nancy Phan’s youngest daughter, confirmed she is “definitely pro-choice,” noting close friends have had abortions.

“Growing up in America, I think I’ve experienced more people my age who have struggled with that choice,” said Pham, who is working toward a degree in radiation therapy.

Mom and daughter avoid talking about abortion at family dinners. It’s a tacit agreement, to keep the peace.

Both live in Santa Ana and are currently in Michelle Steel’s district but redistricting has shifted them into a newly-drawn district — not the one Steel is currently vying for.

Priscilla Huang, too, is represented by Steel now. Because of redistricting, Huang won’t be able to weigh in on Steel’s reelection bid either. Instead, Huang will decide between Kim and Mahmood in her new district, the 40th.

Both Planned Parenthood and Asian Americans in Action, a group Huang co-founded, have endorsed Mahmood.

“I feel like abortion access is fundamentally about bodily autonomy, the right to self determination,” Huang said. “It changed my life for sure.”

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.