Posted Wednesday, May 11, 2011, at 10:42 AM
Whenever a state passes a law, as Texas just did , that requires women who want abortions to get ultrasounds beforehand, I try to imagine what my reaction would be if I was forced to get an ultrasound before being allowed an abortion. I imagine it would be something like: "Holy crap! There's a fetus in there? Well, get it out. I was just coming in because I like having my uterus vaccumed out for no good reason, but now that I know there's a fetus in there, I really want to get this done. God forbid that grow into a baby. I don't want one of those!" Of course, I don't live in Texas anymore, so if I should ever need abortion services, I'd be lucky to go to a clinic in New York, where the state legislature doesn't assume that women are drooling morons.
Most abortion restrictions fall into two categories, with considerable overlap between them: putting up obstacles to abortion that make it harder to get and inflicting punishment on women for seeking abortion. So, regulations that dictate that the hallways have to be so many feet wide in a clinic that provides abortion is more the former, reading lectures at women who want abortions right in the doctor's office is more the latter, and waiting periods are a little of both. Ultrasound requirements are a burden because they use up clinic time and resources, which can limit the number of abortions they can provide (many clinics just have "abortion day" once a week), but I think they're mostly popular because the legislators who pass them get a cheap thrill out of using proxies to inflict pointless lectures on women about their naughty, slutty ways.
One thing we definitely know is the claims that the ultrasounds directly prevent abortion have no evidence for them. Preliminary research shows that ultrasounds have no effect on women's decisions to have abortions. This makes sense if you accept the premise, as I do, that women have functioning brains and ask for abortions precisely because they don't want to have developing embryos inside them. Conservative legislators have fantasies of women seeing fully formed babies on monitors, bursting into tears, and running out of the clinics. In reality, sometimes seeing an ultrasound makes it emotionally harder, but doesn't change a woman's mind. And sometimes it actually makes the decision easier, because most women abort early in their pregnancies, and the images they're looking at mainly show how tiny and unformed the embryo or fetus really is.
Still, this is no reason to be complacent about ultrasound laws. The premise of these laws, that women are uniquely stupid and need to be talked down to, enshrines inequality between men and women into law. Plus, these creeping encroachments on women's rights are moving toward a de facto ban on abortion, and, as I argued at RH Reality Check , it seems that South Dakota has actually crossed the line where they've regulated abortion out of existence in their state. It would be particularly bad if such a thing happened in Texas, which has a large population in need of abortion services and also takes in many women from nearby states who have little to no access at home.