Your fetus has fingernails ... and we're going to show them to you

A new law in Oklahoma requires that doctors perform ultrasounds -- with or without the woman's consent -- before providing an abortion.

Published May 1, 2008 4:54PM (EDT)

Remember the part in "Juno" when Ellen Page's character decides not to get an abortion when a pro-life protester/classmate tells her that her fetus has fingernails? That's nothing compared to what's going on in Oklahoma.

As reported on by Ms. and Alternet, Oklahoma's Legislature just overruled the governor's veto and passed Senate Bill 1878, which requires, among other things, that doctors perform ultrasounds on all women who want to have abortions. (No ultrasound? No abortion. Them's the rules.) The law requires that either a vaginal or abdominal ultrasound be done no less than one hour before the abortion begins. (The choice of ultrasound technique is to be based on which method will give a clearer view of the fetus, not on whether a woman wants to have another piece of medical equipment inserted into her vagina.) The resulting images must be shown to the woman, even if she doesn't want to see them, with the doctor pointing out salient details, like limbs and the heartbeat.

The woman retains the right to look away -- but if she does, her eyes are likely to fall upon the result of another new law included in the bill: All abortion providers must hang signs in their waiting rooms and consultation room that start off saying "Notice: It is against the law for anyone, regardless of his or her relationship to you, to force you to have the abortion."

The penalty if a doctor does not follow the law's details? $10,000 for the first offense, ratcheting up to $100,000 for the third. What's more, failing to perform an ultrasound can count as "unprofessional conduct" and can result in a physician's license being revoked. These rules are applicable even if the pregnancy in question was a result of rape or incest.

If you want to read the full text of the bill, there's a link from Ms. -- but be warned, it will download as a document. (The part about the ultrasounds is in Section 12.)

Now, I think that the decision to have an abortion is a very serious one, and should not be taken lightly. But this law goes too far. There's a piece on the Huffington Post -- written by Dana Stone, who's a doctor and fellow of American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists -- that does a good job of explaining why it's egregious. For example: It forces women to have a procedure done that is not medically necessary (and since vaginal ultrasounds produce better pictures than abdominal ultrasounds in the early stages of pregnancy, this law would often require women to have additional medical instruments put inside them against their wishes). As such, it violates patients' rights to refuse treatment or testing. It also creates penalties that are disproportionately severe. $10,000 for a first offense? According to Stone, in Oklahoma, the maximum fine for driving under the influence or, for that matter, negligent homicide is only $1,000. (It's not as if Oklahoma previously had a laissez-faire attitude toward abortions: In Oklahoma, laws already exist that require abortion providers to tell women where they can find information about fetal development, and refer them to locations where they can get free ultrasounds.)

And then there's the bill's nickname: the "Freedom of Conscience Act." It is unclear whether they are referring to the doctors' consciences (i.e., if you force the woman to have an ultrasound and she still wants an abortion, it's not your fault) or the women's (because clearly you must be free from a conscience if you decide to terminate a pregnancy). I thought of proposing an alternate bill called the "Freedom to Not Have an Ultrasound Wand Stuck Up Your Vagina When It's Not Medically Necessary and You Don't Want It There" Act, but so far at least, Oklahoma's Legislature seems unreceptive.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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