Is Virginia's Proposed Abortion Ultrasound Requirement Really State-Sanctioned Rape?

Also: do you want to hear about my own transvaginal experience? OF COURSE YOU DO.
Publish date:
February 17, 2012
abortion, body politics, pro-choice, transvaginal ultrasound

Virginia, like many other states over the past few years, has gotten up to some dreadful anti-abortion shenanigans this week. Not only has the VA House of Delegates passed a measure declaring a fertilized egg to be a full-fledged person, with all the legal rights and privileges thereof -- i.e., the right not to be “killed” -- they’ve also passed a bill that, if approved by the state Senate, will require women seeking abortions to have ultrasounds before they are allowed to do so.

The fetal personhood law is scary enough; you may remember I wrote about the failed effort in Mississippi to pass a similar measure last year. Then as now, “personhood” efforts to restrict or eliminate abortion are especially tricky because they can also be interpreted -- without even stretching that hard! -- as making certain kinds of birth control illegal, specifically the morning after pill (that infamous “Plan B”) and intrauterine devices (IUDs to their friends). Love your Mirena? Virginia would like to have it back, please.

As a special bonus horror, said “personhood” law would also affect the legality of infertility treatment, especially in-vitro fertilization (IVF). So basically everyone has a pony in this race in some respect.

But the fresh hell Virginia is introducing into the wars over your reproductive system is the pre-abortion ultrasound requirement.

This isn’t actually a new thing: according to the Guttmacher Institute, your go-to source for abortion-related info, seven states have enforced abortion ultrasound laws, and two more have laws that are currently unenforced pending a court decision on the matter. In Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana and Mississippi, the law requires an ultrasound prior to an abortion, and also stipulates that the ultrasound technician must offer the patient the opportunity to view the ultrasound image.

The law in Texas (and currently unenforceable laws in North Carolina and Oklahoma) not only requires the ultrasound to be performed, but it also legally mandates that the ultrasound be displayed and visible to the abortion-seeking person, and that she be forced to listen to a description of the image. The Virginia bill, if passed in its current form, would follow Texas’ example.

The law is heinous enough on paper, but in practice it's even worse. This is a clear effort at inflicting trauma -- if not corporeal punishment -- on abortion-seeking women such that they decide against the procedure. More recently, however, many opponents have focused on the nature of the ultrasound itself, calling it the state-sanctioned rape of abortion-seeking women.

I’ll explain.

Early in pregnancy, the external ultrasound made famous in touching scenes in film and television simply isn’t precise enough to get a clear image. We are talking about a tiny clump of cells here. There is just too much flesh between the external probe and the inside of your uterus for this to really work. Thus, the first-trimester ultrasounds being required are specifically transvaginal ultrasounds (TVU).

In a transvaginal ultrasound, a probe is inserted into the vagina for a better look directly into your uterus. I know all about it, because I’ve had one. A couple years ago, I had a transvaginal ultrasound to have a look-see into my nethers to check for evidence of fibroid tumors and/or polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS).

Some women have a rough time with transvaginal ultrasounds. I know because I read every horror story about the procedure available online prior to having mine done, because I like to prepare for the worst. When I arrived for mine with a full bladder, as instructed, I was a nervous wreck. AND I had to pee in the worst way.

The technician who would be driving the ultrasound bus, as it were, introduced herself and instructed me to get starkers from the waist down. When she returned, I hopped up on the table and she showed me the probe, which looked a bit like what a vibrator from the Apple Store might look like, if the Apple Store sold vibrators. She told me she’d be putting a big ol’ medical condom on that sucker and lubing it up. Then she asked if I wanted her to perform the insertion, or if I would prefer to do so.

Stupidly, I told her to give it a shot, and after a few seconds of ineffectual poking I snatched the probe from her and did it my damn self.

The worst part of the experience was having to pee, and not being able to pee, while a technician was literally jabbing my bladder with a stick. After a few minutes I was given leave to pee and then come back for the rest of the exam, which meant another insertion and a few more minutes of the technician rooting around with the probe while she charted the depths of my ladyparts.

I don’t envy this woman’s job, I have to admit.

Ultimately, the whole magilla lasted around 15 or 20 minutes, and I left feeling as though it really wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. This may have been because I happened to have a mild experience, or it may have been because I had so worked myself up to expect the worst that anything short of having lasers shot through my ovaries was going to be a letdown.

I tell this story because I think it is important to note that transvaginal ultrasounds have valuable medical purposes unrelated to abortion, and are not necessarily a terrible experience all on their own. Now, it’s possible I had a really great technician. It’s also possible I’m just unusually cool with having my innards shoved around. Just because I had an OK time doesn’t mean everyone will, and I grant that different people will have very different experiences with it.

In my case, I got to see a maturing follicle on my left ovary, and that my uterus is a little tilt-y, and that I have no fibroids and no cysts and in general am possessed of a pretty healthy set of reproductive plumbing. It was neat, for me, because I wasn’t pregnant and I wasn’t only doing it to gain legal access to a medical procedure that has existed in one form or another for literally hundreds of years and which should be safe and accessible to everyone, no matter their circumstance or situation.

While I understand, and even support, those who would draw attention to the injustice of the transvaginal ultrasound as a requirement for abortion, I remain on the fence about whether drawing a direct analogy between transvaginal ultrasound and rape is a sound idea.

Ideally, we should not need to call a TVU “rape” in order to point out how unreasonable and disgusting this law is, this law that so doubts the ability of an individual woman to make decisions that are sound and right for her that it would require that woman to undergo a MEDICALLY UNNECESSARY and invasive procedure with NO EXCEPTIONS to the rule -- that’s right, even if she is seeking an abortion as a result of having been raped.

Words often fail when it comes to describing the trauma of rape (although our own Emily always does a memorable and moving job at it) and I am reluctant to conflate these two experiences. I understand the reasoning behind the rape analogy -- most laws against rape tend to describe the act as being sexual intercourse or penetration perpetrated against a non-cooperative and/or complaining victim.

Forcing a woman to have a probe inserted into her vagina by keeping her from accessing an abortion until she has complied? The imbalance of power and control implied by such an arrangement? Yes, I see the how and why of opponents describing that as rape under the legal definition. And certainly medical procedures performed in ways that belittle or disempower the patient can be severely traumatic.

I just stop short of calling that rape, myself. You may disagree.

I hope that whatever we call it, we can agree that the Virgina bill -- and the Texas law and the North Carolina and Oklahoma laws currently under scruntiny -- is bad news, not simply because it forces women to undergo a pointless and possibly uncomfortable experience, but because it disenfranchises individual women from making independent and private decisions about their healthcare. It literally invites the government to intervene in her reproductive health, and makes the point that her personal autonomy ends where her uterus begins, turning part of her body into public property on a legal scale.

Unfortunately, some version of these bills is expected to pass the VA Senate, and the governor has asserted his support and intention to sign them. If you live in Virginia, you can contact your local representatives and ask them to reconsider voting for this bill.

If you live elsewhere: pay attention. Don’t assume this will never happen where you are. Right now, if we don’t speak up and defend our right to choose, we may very well lose it.