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Terry O'Neill

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Mandatory Ultrasound Laws Violate Women's Rights and Bodies

Posted: 02/27/2012 10:03 am

For decades, the radical right has been chipping away at women's access to reproductive health care. After the 2010 elections, these attacks escalated into an outright War on Women. Now, the Republican presidential primaries are offering a disturbing glimpse into the supposed conservative vision for this country. In this right-wing utopia, women will no longer be able to exercise the right to control their bodies, plan their families or safeguard their own health. The church and the state will tell women what is best for them, and religious entities' "liberty" will consistently trump individual women's right to live and work free from discrimination and in accordance with their own religious and moral beliefs.

Much of the current he-man chest thumping is done for the benefit of voters who might be swayed to cast their ballots for the GOP based largely on social issues. And, as demonstrated in Virginia this week, conservative politicians are perfectly capable of putting on the brakes when proceeding with a piece of their anti-woman agenda appears to be backfiring.

Still, the right-wing commitment to keeping women in check is surprisingly strong and reveals a frightening disrespect, even contempt for women who aren't sufficiently submissive. Turning the clock back includes shaming women for their sexuality and punishing them for terminating a pregnancy (which is still legal, by the way). This brings us to one of the more degrading tactics up the radical-right sleeve: mandatory ultrasound laws.

Under these laws, before a woman can undergo an abortion procedure, a doctor must perform an ultrasound and offer the woman an opportunity to view the image of the fetus or hear a detailed description. As ultrasounds are rarely medically necessary prior to an abortion, these laws exist to demean the woman and make the procedure more expensive to boot. Ultrasound costs range from $300 to $700, and the woman, of course, is typically expected to pay for this state-mandated exam.

But the most disturbing aspect of these laws is that in the vast majority of abortions, which occur far too early in pregnancy for an external ("jelly on the belly") ultrasound to produce an image, the ultrasound must be transvaginal -- i.e., a long wand-like ultrasound probe must be inserted deep into the woman's vagina. This is, quite simply, state-sponsored rape. Even the FBI recognized last year, as most states did long ago, that vaginal penetration without a woman's consent is rape.

Currently, women living in seven states are subject to laws mandating ultrasounds as part of abortion services and two more have laws that are on hold pending legal challenges. But the issue did not come to national attention until the battle over Virginia's ultrasound bill blew up in a big way, thanks to online and on-the-ground organizing that helped spark public outrage.

Negotiations over the Virginia bill have unfolded throughout the month of February. With the Virginia Senate, the House of Delegates and the governorship under GOP control after the last election, legislators must have felt pretty confident adopting a bill with so little regard for women's dignity. Some Democrats pointed out that a mandatory ultrasound would be state-sanctioned rape and would violate a Virginia law making sexual penetration by an object a criminal act. The extremists were unfazed, one of them actually saying that women had already decided to be "vaginally penetrated when they got pregnant." Right. Tell that to the victim of rape or incest.

Earlier this week, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, cringing before a growing public backlash, rescinded his promise to sign the Virginia bill. He announced he wanted a requirement exclusively for an external ultrasound before abortion, saying he didn't think an "invasive procedure" should be a "precondition to another medical procedure." But he fully supports humiliating women with a medically unnecessary, nonconsensual, expensive procedure as a legal precondition to an abortion -- which, it bears repeating, is still legal.

The Virginia legislature then went back to the drawing board, with the House inserting a series of convoluted amendments that soften the bill but still require an abdominal ultrasound and the offer of a vaginal one if gestational age cannot be determined. But that just made the conservatives mad, and they threatened to kill the bill altogether. Its fate is now uncertain.

For supporters of women's rights, it's too soon to claim victory just yet. For one thing, any mandatory ultrasound law -- vaginal or abdominal -- is a violation of a woman's right to bodily integrity and an ugly intrusion on her right to choose to terminate a pregnancy. For another, two more states (Illinois and Pennsylvania) just announced that they are pursuing mandatory ultrasound laws.

But it's not to soon to learn a few lessons from this whole debacle. First, the right wing is trying to curb access to reproductive health care by any means necessary, and they're not afraid to use humiliation, shaming and even state-sponsored rape in the process. Second, and most importantly, women (and the men who support our fundamental rights) are powerful enough to stop them -- especially when we sound the alarm online, surround the statehouses, gather petitions and call, email, write and personally visit elected officials to tell them to get out and stay out of women's wombs. That is how we will win -- by standing up and speaking out, loud and unapologetically.

And it doesn't hurt to have Amy Poehler and Jon Stewart on your side.

 

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