Ultrasound: latest tool in battle over abortion

Images of fetuses are at the center of a hot debate over states' 'witness to the womb' laws.

Shannon Staley of Columbia, S.C., was eight weeks pregnant when she saw an ultrasound picture of the fetus. Seeing the image – which looked to her like an "itty, bitty smudge" – did not change her intent to have an abortion. But it would be misguided and intrusive, she said, to require that every South Carolina woman seeking an abortion be offered a viewing of an ultrasound image of the fetus she carries.

Monica Burgess of Fort Mill, S.C., though, would support such a law. She was 12 weeks pregnant when the fuzzy ultrasound picture revealed the face and thrashing limbs of the child she was bearing. She said she was already convinced that an abortion would be a mistake, and seeing that image gave her solace and reinforced her decision to give up the baby, a girl, for adoption.

Ultrasound technology – which allows doctors to "see" into the womb to check on fetal development – is among the latest weapons in America's arduous battle over abortion. So far, 10 states have approved "witness to the womb" laws of some kind, and South Carolina has been wrestling this spring over how to craft similar legislation. The Senate is expected to vote on its version of the law Tuesday.

Abortion foes say it is a medical imperative that women have access to all information about their pregnancies before deciding whether to end them, and that should include an opportunity to have and see an ultrasound. Abortion rights activists say such requirements are medically unnecessary, constitutionally suspect, and even a form of emotional blackmail of women in the throes of making a difficult choice.

Testifying at a Senate hearing in Columbia in late March, Ms. Staley and Ms. Burgess provided the bookends to what has been a hot debate over the value to women of seeing ultrasound images of the inside of their wombs.

Just a week earlier, on March 21, the South Carolina House had approved a bill, 91 to 23, that would require doctors to show all pregnant women an ultrasound before they can proceed with an abortion. Gov. Mark Sanford (R) backed the legislation. But in April, a Senate subcommittee, swayed by Attorney General Henry McMaster's position that forcing women to view an ultrasound would be unconstitutional, crafted a softer bill. If the state Senate passes that bill Tuesday, it would have to hammer out compromise language with the House.

Ten states with 'witness to womb' laws

Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Idaho, and Michigan now require doctors to offer women seeking abortions an opportunity to view an ultrasound. Laws in Indiana, Oklahoma, Utah, and Wisconsin require that doctors inform women that ultrasounds are available. In all, 22 pieces of ultrasound legislation were introduced in 15 states this year, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington.

"If a picture is worth a thousand words, how much can we tell about life from a picture of the womb?" asks Patrick Jacks of Fort Mill, an abortion opponent who spoke at the March hearing.

Most of the approximately 1.3 million women who have abortions each year are neither offered nor shown ultrasound images by their doctors. Many obstetricians have testified that in most cases it's not medically necessary for these women to see the images.

Mandating it assumes "that women are somehow how being rushed into making these decisions," says Elizabeth Nash, a policy analyst at the Guttmacher Institute. Others argue that such laws whittle away at women's rights to abortion.

"It's obvious that what's being done is an attempt to dissuade a woman from having an abortion, the assumption being that if she sees a growing life inside her, she will hesitate or change her mind," says Harvey Kornberg, a political scientist at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J.

Court precedent allows states some leeway to limit abortion. On average, 1,000 measures on reproductive-health issues are introduced in the states each year. That trend was bolstered when the US Supreme Court upheld a state's ban on so-called partial-birth abortion on April 19, says Mr. Kornberg. About one-third of states, mostly in the South and Midwest, will continue to impose restrictions on abortion, experts predict.

"We're beginning to see these kinds of laws … to encourage pregnancy – and we're going to see more," says Kornberg.

Humanity of a fetus vs. women's rights?

Ultrasound laws are among the most hotly debated issues of the year. At the hearing in Columbia before a standing-room-only crowd, young and zealous abortion opponents who declared the humanity of the fetus took on lawyers, doctors, and a contingent of mostly older women who argued such laws are a political concoction that have "profound implications" for women's rights.

Women who know firsthand how they were affected by seeing an ultrasound agree it's a crucial time in the abortion debate. But like Staley and Burgess, they see the ultrasound laws through the lens of their own views on the morality of abortion.

For Staley, who chose to proceed with an abortion, laws that foist upon women the viewing of ultrasounds is a way to keep "the last bastion of control that society has over women."

For Burgess, who became a pro-life activist after giving birth, ultrasounds are part of a "revolution" in reproductive health that can have a positive impact on women. "[Ultrasounds] are a way of giving equal rights to women in the form of information they should know," she says. "I could no longer say, 'This is not a child and it's not happening.' "

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