Standing with Wisconsin Women: Mandatory Ultrasounds, 20 week abortion bans, and the Ideology of Reproductive Rights Legislation


Today, the Republican-controlled state Assembly approved a bill that would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with no exceptions for rape, pregnancies resulting from sexual assault or incest, or severe fetal anomalies, and would threaten doctors who perform an abortion after 20 weeks with up to $10,000 in fines and 3½ years in prison. As Todd Richmond notes, “The fetus’ parents also could sue the doctor for damages.” Yes.  You read that correctly. I wrote this back in June, but now it awaits the governor’s approval and will most definitely go into law.  Whenever a bill like this is passed or even proposed, I think of all the women and families that will be hurt by this, including one of my good friends who courageously posted today, “I had a terrifying 20 week ultrasound with Nevin. He is fine. I am grateful. But I’m so, so angry about what is happening in the legislature right now. The VAST majority of abortions performed between 20 and 24 weeks are due to fatal fetal anomalies in wanted pregnancies.‪#‎StandWithWIWomen‬.” 

I want to re-post this because the ideology behind these and similar bills hasn’t changed since June.  As WPR reports, “The bill’s Republican supporters argue fetuses can feel pain after 20 weeks. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, however, says evidence suggests that’s not possible until the third trimester begins at 27 weeks.”  Regarless of the justification for this type of legislation, these types of bills hurt women, hurt families, and I hope those who read this get a better understanding of the realities of late term abortions and all anti-abortion legislation.

Original post below:

With much of the focus in Wisconsin right now on the Joint Committee on Finance’s sweeping changes to long term care and public education, many have overlooked the fact that Republican lawmakers plan to move quickly on the passage of a bill to ban abortions after 20 weeks.  The bill would ban abortions at the point when some believe a fetus is capable of experiencing pain, which the bill says occurs 20 weeks after fertilization. The governor plans to sign the legislation which would offer no exemptions in the cases of rape or incest.  Other states have used this same line of reasoning to support similar bills, though the science is dubious at best, has been widely medically disputed, and those who put out the research have been outspoken as to how their research is being misused.  Currently 11 states have 20-week bans in effect, according to the Guttmacher Institute, with West Virginia becoming the most recent state to enact their version.

The media has also diverted our attention away from this bill and onto Governor Walker’s recent comments during an interview with conservative radio host Dana Loesch, defending a bill he’d signed in 2013 requiring women seeking abortions to undergo medically unnecessary ultrasounds stating, “I’ll give you an example. I’m pro-life, I’ve passed pro-life legislation. We defunded Planned Parenthood, we signed a law that requires an ultrasound. Which, the thing about that, the media tried to make that sound like that was a crazy idea. Most people I talk to, whether they’re pro-life or not, I find people all the time who’ll get out their iPhone and show me a picture of their grandkids’ ultrasound and how excited they are, so that’s a lovely thing. I think about my sons are 19 and 20, you know we still have their first ultrasound picture. It’s just a cool thing out there.”

Major media outlets and advocacy groups pounced on the governor’s remarks:

Gail Collins: “Let’s leap, temporarily, past the fact that Walker was conflating the vision of happy parents getting their first glimpse of their baby-to-be with what’s appropriate for a woman who has made the stupendously profound and private decision to terminate a pregnancy . . . . we have here a potential president who justifies a law on how doctors treat their abortion patients by citing what we know from watching TV and movies. Seventeen months to go. Lord knows what’s next.”

Planned Parenthood President Cecile Richards: “Women are very clear that forced government ultrasounds are not ‘cool.'”

Ann Merlan: “As for Walker’s contention that everybody’s out here showing him fetus photos on their iPhones, one might argue that there’s a world of difference between looking at an ultrasound of a wanted pregnancy and having a foreign object inserted into your body against your will as a punitive measure to make you feel bad about needing an abortion. Not Scott Walker, obviously, but someone might.”

Kaylie Hanson, the DNC’s director of women’s media:  “No, Scott Walker, mandatory ultrasounds aren’t ‘cool.’ And Republican attempts to undermine women’s health aren’t ‘cool’ either.”

Steve Benen: “Walker, who’s either playing dumb or is genuinely confused by a simple controversy he helped create, can’t imagine who’s ‘opposed to an ultrasound.’ The answer is, no one’s opposed to ultrasounds in general, but plenty of people are opposed to state-mandated, medically unnecessary procedures imposed by right-wing politicians who choose to interfere with the doctor-patient relationship as part of a larger culture war. It’s really not that complicated. As we discussed the other day, the problem, whether Walker can understand this or not, is that politicians shouldn’t be in the business of dictating ultrasounds’ use. If he finds this bewildering, perhaps he’s in the wrong line of work. One need not be ‘deranged’ to see Walker’s policy as ridiculous.”

As Media Matters reports, Walker quickly defended his remarks and lambasted the “liberal media” by saying his quote was taken out of context.  Walker claimed “This is a typical example of the left — not just leftist organizations, but some even in the left in the media —  take out of context comments out there . . . . Well they’re pushing back on it, saying I said it was cool. Well, I think ultrasounds are cool. And they tried to mischaracterize our law, says, simply put, if someone is going to go in for abortion, we require the provider, whoever is doing that procedure, has to provide access to an ultrasound, a traditional ultrasound, not the kind they planned out there, because we believe as someone who’s pro-life, I believe that if someone has access to seeing that information, if they can look at it, not forced to, but if they can look at it if they so choose, if that’s available, chances are they’re going to pick life. They’ll pick the life of that unborn child. I think that’s a great thing. And if they don’t, under the law, they don’t have to. But the reality is, I think those on the left are afraid of people actually having information. They say they’re pro-choice, but they don’t want an informed choice.”

And here is where we get into the realities of Walker’s claims.  First of all, there is no evidence to suggest that those who are forced to receive medically unnecessary ultrasounds will “choose life.”  In a recent study, nearly 99% of women subjected to mandatory ultrasounds went ahead with an abortion after voluntarily viewing an ultrasound image of the fetus beforehand.  In addition, the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists stated that “To force a physician to recite a scripted oral description of the findings if the pregnant woman declines is abusive. The proposed requirements do not make abortion safer for women, but do create unnecessary bureaucratic barriers and add both emotional and financial stress to an already difficult decision.”

And, as PR Watch noted, “While the bill does not specify that the mandatory ultrasound be transvaginal, medical professionals testified that in the first trimester (when most abortions take place), it can be difficult to detect a heartbeat with an abdominal ultrasound, thus making an invasive transvaginal ultrasound mandatory. Many lawmakers and citizens expressed concern about the adverse psychological impact of a mandatory transvaginal ultrasound, particularly for women who are seeking an abortion after being the victim of a rape or after learning that their pregnancy is not viable.”

Wisconsin isn’t the only state to pass a law like this.  As of May 1st, 2015:

  • 12 states require verbal counseling or written materials to include information on accessing ultrasound services.
  • 23 states regulate the provision of ultrasound by abortion providers.
  • 3 states mandate that an abortion provider perform an ultrasound on each woman seeking an abortion and requires the provider to show and describe the image.
  • 10 states mandate that an abortion provider perform an ultrasound on each woman seeking an abortion, and require the provider to offer the woman the opportunity to view the image
  • 9 states require that a woman be provided with the opportunity to view an ultrasound image if her provider performs the procedure as part of the preparation for an abortion
  • 5 states require that a woman be provided with the opportunity to view an ultrasound image.

And on May 13th of this year, the House passed legislation that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.  Most would insist that these lawmakers are vehemently passionate about protecting all life, and that any legislation that would make it more difficult for a woman to receive access to abortion is merely working to protect that effort.

But could there be a deeper reason?  Many have argued that the motives for passing reproductive rights legislation is much more complex.  In a recent interview between Gloria Steinem and Jennifer Aniston, Aniston asked Steinem why the word feminism was so complicated.  Her answer included the role of reproductive rights claiming, “Because it’s a big revolution. Feminism, or Womanism, or whatever it is you call it, is taking away the single biggest unpaid labor force in the world, the single biggest underpaid labor force in the world. And it’s taking away control of reproduction. And reproduction is even more important than production. So it is a serious threat. It’s common sense — most people believe it. But it isn’t in the power structure. Some people are against it because they don’t know what it means. Some people are against it because they do know what it means.”

In a similar vein, comparing the culture wars on marriage equality and reproductive rights, Katha Pollitt writes, “Marriage equality is a wonderful thing, an important civil right that brings dignity to a previously excluded group. Over time, it may subtly affect the gender conventions of straight marriage, but it won’t fundamentally alter our social and economic arrangements. Reproductive rights, though, are inescapably connected to the larger project of feminism, which has already destabilized every area of life, from the bedroom to the boardroom. What might women demand, what might they accomplish, how might they choose to live, if every woman had children only when and if she wanted them?”

Sounds conspiratorial? Perhaps.  But allowing women the freedom to have a say over when they want to have children–the choice to plan that part of their lives–is still a revolutionary idea to some and is still seen as an incredible threat to many in positions of power who want to maintain inequality and hierarchy.  As Steinem also famously said, quoting a taxi driver she met while working with Florynce Kennedy, “If men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament.”  Simply put:  legislating something you will never have to experience is, well, easy.

I know Governor Walker has never personally needed an abortion, and I would put money on the fact that he has never met anyone who has either.  You see, it’s easy to make sweeping generalizations about what’s “good” for an entire demographic of people when you yourself have never been in a position where you’ve needed those types of services.  It’s easy, for example, to say we should go to war with another country when you aren’t on the front lines.  It’s easy to say we should drug test welfare recipients and make sure they’re not wasting your hard earned taxpayer dollars on twinkies and lobster bisque if you’ve never needed government assistance.  It’s easy to say abortion is wrong and should be outlawed under any circumstance, even in the case of rape and incest, if you’ve never needed one.  And It’s easy to see abortion as murder, to assume the women who get them are irresponsible and just using the procedure as a form of birth control if you’ve never sat with a grieving friend who would do anything to keep the child she has, but decides to terminate because she found out her baby wouldn’t survive outside the womb.  We don’t have a culture war problem in this country: we have an empathy problem.

In Gretchen Voss’s “My Late Term Abortion,” she writes a heart wrenching story about her struggle to decide to terminate her pregnancy–a child she and her husband desperately wanted–but was informed during a routine ultrasound “that the baby would certainly be paralyzed and incontinent, that the baby’s brain was being tugged against the opening in the base of the skull and the cranium was full of fluid — was awful. What they didn’t know — whether the baby would live at all, and if so, with what sort of mental and developmental defects — was devastating. Countless surgeries would be required if the baby did live. None of them would repair the damage that was already done.”  It was during this time President Bush had just passed the “Partial Birth Abortion Ban” making an abortion like Gretchen’s illegal since she was so far along.  Partial birth abortions or late term abortions account for fewer than one-fifth of 1 percent of all abortions in this country, yet the bill made it seem as if these were irresponsible women killing healthy babies.  And the change in language from “late term” abortion to “partial birth” made it easy for this type of legislation to be passed.  After all, partial birth abortion sounds gruesome and barbaric even when the procedure is not.  As Voss states, “They created a nonexistent procedure — partial-birth abortion — and then banned it. They then gave it such a purposely vague definition that, according to abortion providers as well as the Supreme Court, which ruled a similar law in Nebraska unconstitutional, it could apply to all abortions after the first trimester.”

But perhaps one of the most important quotes of her story reads, “Everyone said, of course it’s the right thing to do — even my Catholic father and my Republican father-in-law, neither of whom was ever ‘pro-choice.’ Because suddenly, for them, it wasn’t about religious doctrine or political platforms. It was personal — their son, their daughter, their grandchild. It was flesh and blood, as opposed to abstract ideology, and that changed everything.”  When ideas and abstractions become your daughter, your family, or yourself, those ideologies change.  In addition, there is still such stigma around those who choose to get an abortion, we forget just how many women need it. As the 1 in 3 campaign reminds us (based on the statistic that one in 3 women will need an abortion in their lifetime) “The 1 in 3 Campaign is a grassroots movement to start a new conversation about abortion—telling our stories, on our own terms. Together, we can end the stigma and shame women are made to feel about abortion. As we share our stories we begin to build a culture of compassion, empathy, and support for access to basic health care. It’s time for us to come out in support of each other and in support of access to legal and safe abortion care in our communities. The 1 in 3 campaign builds on the success of prior social change movements, harnessing the power of storytelling to engage and inspire action and strengthen support for abortion access. By encouraging women who have had abortions to end their silence, share their stories, and start a new and more personal conversation about abortion in our society, the 1 in 3 Campaign will help create a more enabling cultural environment for the policy and legal work of the abortion rights movement.”  Ayen-Tran_BAUMGARDNER

Because when we live in a culture of silence, when we don’t talk about having these procedures, we assume they don’t happen.  As a rape survivor, I can count the numerous times I’ve told my story to strangers, friends, or family members who never knew it happened to me, and responded and shared with me an equally traumatic experience.  Because rape happens, too.  Too often.  Yet when we are assaulted or when we get abortions, there is no setting on Facebook for those types of life moments.  Our news feeds are filled with happy announcements:  engagements, marriages, new babies.  We only share the good.

So what have we learned?  Mandatory ultrasounds are not, in fact, cool.  At all.  In any way.  They don’t serve the purpose intended which is to make the mother rethink her decision to have an abortion.  The motivations behind making policies regarding a woman’s legal right to an abortion are complex. And those who tend to make these types of policies and others likely tend to base their decisions not on personal experience but on abstract ideologies.  The right to terminate a pregnancy is still legal in this country, but those rights are being chipped away at year after year after year.  Young women today don’t know a time when abortion was illegal–when their friends and loved ones died to have the procedure done, and I fear it’s led to complacency and an assumption that that right will always be legal and guaranteed.  For many, at least for the students in my classes, they aren’t paying attention to the legislation being introduced, and they certainly aren’t fighting against it.  Just this past semester one of my students asked, “do you think we will have to lose all of our rights and protections to start paying attention and realize what is happening in our nation?”  Sadly, in this case, the answer might be yes.

I wish Governor Walker knew Gretchen Voss, or other women who have had to make such utterly heartbreaking decisions.  I wish Governor Walker had had the experience of driving a friend, a niece, a co-worker, or any loved one to an abortion clinic to realize the reality of what that woman goes through during and after termination.  I wish he could live one day in the life of a woman who has needed an abortion but could not get one due to lack of economic means or access.  I don’t believe Governor Walker is evil.  Nor do I think he believes his comments were cavalier or offensive.  But I do believe had he had those lived experiences, “cool” would be the last word he would use to describe any of this.