By Cathy Ruse, special to the Times
In Print: Monday, May 24, 2010
Last year, in the dead heat of the summer, I developed pneumonia. When my doctor suspected the cause of my fatigue and shortness of breath, he ordered an X-ray and in a short while we were examining the picture of my lungs. This window to an erstwhile unseen world provided by modern medicine allowed my doctor to confirm his diagnosis and provided the information I needed to make decisions about my treatment.
A dozen states are considering laws that require abortion clinics to provide ultrasound images for women seeking abortion. Obstetric ultrasound is a safe and noninvasive procedure using high frequency sound waves to provide a picture of the moving fetus on a monitor screen. A "transducer" is placed on the abdomen and moved to capture different views inside the uterus. The fetal heartbeat can be viewed as early as four weeks, and other fetal measurements can be made accurately from the images on the screen.
Opponents of these laws, like the editors at USA Today, say the ultrasound mandates "cross a line" and force "unnecessary medical procedures" on women. Yet the reality of abortion in America suggests this rhetoric is off the mark.
There are far too many stories of women who were not fully informed before their abortion and are suffering now because of it. In fact, there are women in court today suing abortion doctors for lying to them about the state of development of their child. The people in various states considering these laws have the right to decide that women deserve factual information before an abortion and that the best information about fetal development is an ultrasound picture.
Florida's proposed law prescribes an ultrasound prior to every abortion. Women must be allowed to view the live ultrasound images, though they must also be informed that they have the right to decline to view them under the law. In either case, the law requires that the physician or sonographer review and explain the images. (Most obstetric ultrasound procedures are performed topically, as described above. An alternative is the transvaginal ultrasound, which produces an enhanced image quality but is not a common prenatal procedure. The Florida measure does not require this more invasive procedure.)
The fact is, ultrasounds are used today by abortion clinic doctors (they actually make abortions safer) but the screen is turned away from the woman. Proponents of bills like the one in Florida believe, quite simply, that the information an ultrasound provides ought to be in the hands of the person who is making the abortion decision, not only the person who stands to profit from it. And there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the information an ultrasound provides is relevant and meaningful to that decisionmaker. Various studies suggest that about 80 percent of women change their mind about abortion after seeing an ultrasound. If women themselves say ultrasounds make a difference, "prochoice" politicians shouldn't stand in the way of making this information available.
Some charge that providing ultrasound images equates to emotional blackmail for a woman who has already made an agonizing decision, but a recent study published in the European Journal of Contraception and Reproductive Health Care would suggest otherwise. In an article entitled, "Women's perceptions about seeing the ultrasound picture before an abortion," the authors report that women presenting for medical and surgical abortions at two urban clinics were asked if they wished to view an ultrasound image. Of 350 participants, 72.6 percent chose to view the ultrasound and, of those, 86.3 percent found it a positive experience.
Abortion proponents could adopt this standard of practice voluntarily, of course, but they won't. Abortion clinics are for-profit ventures, and notoriously underregulated — animal hospitals and beauty salons are better regulated than some abortion clinics. They will always oppose laws that strengthen a woman's right to know because when women are empowered, they tend to choose life for their children. That's good medicine, but bad for business.
Cathy Ruse is senior fellow for legal studies at the Family Research Council.