Over the last few months much misinformation has been spread about legislation offering women the opportunity to view an ultrasound image of their child prior to abortion.
To be clear, these laws are not uncommon. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 20 states currently have a law either requiring doctors to perform ultrasounds or to offer to show the results to women if ultrasounds are performed. And in 2010, 21 states introduced ultrasound informed consent bills.
But it was Virginia’s law, enacted in February, 2012, that took the national stage. And while each ultrasound law is unique, there was little in substance or content that distinguished Virginia’s law from the many other similar state laws. What was new, however, were the rhetorical scare tactics employed by those advocating an abortion ideology, namely the invocation of the term “rape.”
Opponents of this bill erroneously equated a transvaginal ultrasound with a “second rape” and in doing so successfully frightened many legislators. The reality is that the language “transvaginal ultrasound” was never included in the bill either in its initial form or in the later, amended form ultimately signed into law. Rather, the bill called for a woman to receive the “standard of care” as defined by the medical community.
The American Institute of Ultrasound in Medicine (AIUM) defines the standard of care for ultrasonography. This includes offering either a transabdominal or transvaginal ultrasound for the first trimester, explaining that “If a transabdominal is not definitive, a transvaginal scan should be performed whenever possible.” Generally speaking, a transvaginal ultrasound is usually used for up to 11 weeks of a pregnancy, simply because until this time the embryo is small enough to need an internal view to capture it. Around 11 weeks the embryo is large enough that an abdominal ultrasound can capture a strong image, and so the standard then changes appropriately to abdominal ultrasound at this point.
Not unimportantly, a general practice by any medical practitioner is never to force a woman to have a transvaginal ultrasound (or any procedure) if she does not want it. In this case, the physician simply makes a note of the interaction to assure his attempt to provide medically accurate information and then provides an abdominal ultrasound.
The recent Virginia ultrasound law included this language and nothing more. But none of this information was provided to the public during the emotional debate and erroneous claims made about Virginia ‘s abortion bill.
Ultrasound laws protect women in a number of ways. For a woman seeking abortion, the ultrasound will determine the viability of the baby. According to the National Institute of Health, between 15-20 percent of women who know they are pregnant will miscarry (for those not yet aware that they are pregnant, the miscarriage rate is much higher at 50 percent). Many pregnancies are therefore “non-viable” — but are aborted when the mother would have naturally miscarried. Ultrasound confirms viability, or in some cases, confirms that the baby is not viable. Additionally, ultrasounds rule out the deadly possibility of an ectopic pregnancy (an abnormal pregnancy outside of the uterus), critical before a woman undergoes a chemical abortion. Additionally of note, but not well publicized, is that most abortion clinics currently provide ultrasounds as the standard of care. However, what they do not offer the woman is the opportunity to view her developing baby.
Ultrasound laws fall within the category of “informed consent” laws because a woman has the right to have as much information as possible prior to having such major surgery as an abortion.
Many women who choose abortion regret it. In my position working in pro-life public policy, I meet many women who tell me they wish they had not chosen to terminate their baby. And most ultrasound laws (including Virginia’s) offer an “opt out,” ensuring that the woman is free to not view the ultrasound if she so chooses.
Perhaps what is most “scary” about an ultrasound is that it brings to light the reality of the developing life in the womb and in doing so, frequently convinces the parents to choose life. Why is that considered a bad thing?
People on both side of the abortion issue agree that we need to decrease the number of abortions. Conservatives often are wrongly accused of being anti-science and anti-technology, and yet ultrasound laws make use of the latest technology to assure the viability, age and health of the baby.
Yes, they bring to light the fact that a very young baby is not a lifeless blob of tissue. What’s so scary about that?
Jeanne Monahan is director of the Center for Human Dignity at the Family Research Council.