Ultrasound controversy

Inviting a woman to view an ultrasound before she has an abortion is a creepy anti-choice tactic -- but that doesn't mean it's a bad idea.

Published February 8, 2007 8:01PM (EST)

Obstetric ultrasounds are supposed to evoke murmurs of adoration, not shouts of political vitriol, but new state bills requiring doctors to offer women access to their ultrasound results before an abortion are giving this beloved technology a sinister glow. As reported Wednesday in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Georgia Legislature erupted in debate when a bill requiring doctors to share ultrasounds with women before they chose an abortion was brought before the House for a vote. Last week, the South Dakota Legislature's House Health Committee (home of the deplorable new bill that would make abortions punishable with up to 10 years in prison except in cases of rape or incest and when a pregnancy threatens the life of the mother) passed a similar bill, HB1296.

I am heartlessly in favor of abortions -- so at first glance I can't see the great risk in requiring doctors to offer a woman an ultrasound before choosing to terminate. Of course, these bills are part of the antiabortion agenda and are often packaged with heinous proposed laws that would criminalize the procedure.

But the arguments against the ultrasound bills offer a glimpse at the contradictions lurking behind some of the pro-choice talking points. The first is that having an abortion is a difficult enough decision as it is, so women don't need antiabortion doctors pointing out any cute attributes of their soon-to-be-terminated spawn. This argument presumes that seeing an ultrasound might make women change their minds and decide to have a baby instead of an abortion. My contention is that if women are so easily convinced that their fetus is a baby, and therefore that their abortion is wrong, then perhaps abortion isn't right for them. Maybe a woman in this position will become one of those women who have an abortion and then go on to regret it so deeply that they become antiabortion activists. The proposed laws wouldn't require that women view the ultrasound, only that they have a right to do so. The other argument is that the bills are patronizing, in that they assume women don't know what's really going on in their body. As Georgia state Rep. Nikki Randall put it, "It's insulting to think that they [women] don't have all of the right information. Believe it or not, we know what's going on with us. We live with it."

These two perspectives seem to clash with each other -- either ultrasound is a powerful and potentially influential tool in women's decisions regarding abortion, or it offers redundant information that tells a woman what she already knows. Of course, we don't want to give the antiabortion forces any more guilt-inducing weapons for their arsenal -- given that many women seeking abortion already face harassment, the ultrasound could add to an ugly scene. But that doesn't make me see an ultrasound as an inherent evil.

The bills may create unnecessary expense, requiring clinics to offer ultrasounds or send women to another facility if they don't have the right equipment. For cases in which ultrasound is not medically necessary, it'd be a fat waste of money to require clinics to give women a high-tech window into their anatomy. But if there's an ultrasound available, it should be offered to a woman seeking an abortion, if she wants it. It's her body, after all.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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