Here we are almost 40 years after the Supreme Court’s historic Roe vs. Wade decision, and legislators are still threatening a woman’s right to reproductive choice. Texas lawmakers just passed a bill requiring that women wishing to terminate a pregnancy must first undergo an ultrasound and then take some time to think about her decision. The state house approved the bill yesterday, and the state senate supported a similar anti-abortion measure last month. The final say will rest in the hands of Texas governor Rick Perry. Apparently, Perry praised Texas lawmakers for their vote — which makes my stomach sink.
You may think it’s simple enough. A woman comes to her doctor and wants an abortion. Why not slap a scanner on her belly and take a sneak peek?
What harm can it do?
I’m all for extensive counseling when it comes to offering a woman a pregnancy termination. Abortions should never be rushed choices stemming from fear or anxiety that might lead to post-abortion regret.
And I’m not against performing ultrasounds on women seeking to terminate a pregnancy. As an OB/GYN who made the difficult choice to perform abortions because I felt so strongly that women should be offered safe, compassionate care, I’ve chosen to perform ultrasounds on many abortion candidates—not because some law forced me to, but because my patient didn’t know her last period and we needed to determine the due date. So I’ve been the one holding the ultrasound probe, and yes, from time to time, I’ve had patients who change their mind after gazing at the little beating heart of their fetus.
But I’ve also seen others break down when they see that fetus on the screen and hear its heartbeat. I’ve held my patient in my arms when she tells me how she feels like a terrible person, how she wonders if she’s going to hell, and how nobody will ever love her after the terrible thing she’s decided to do. I’ve held her hand when she tells me, “I know you want me to tell you that I’m sure I’m doing the right thing. But I’ll never know for sure, and I’ll probably be counting her birthdays 20 years from now. But I just can’t do this right now. Please forgive me.”
When I did have to perform an ultrasound on someone seeking pregnancy termination, I always gave my patients the choice of looking away when I scanned them. Some wanted to look and listen anyway. But at least the government wasn’t forcing me to put my patient through a potentially traumatic process when she’d already made up her mind. I can’t imagine how damaging such a law would have been to my relationship with my patients.
As a pro-choice OB/GYN who wishes nobody ever had to terminate a pregnancy, I’m very conflicted about this whole issue (as you can tell in this post I wrote about choosing to perform abortions after being raised in a very Christian household full of pro-lifers).
But the government forcing a woman to see or listen to a description of her baby’s beating heart—and then sending her on her merry little way so she can search her soul and make sure she’s doing the right thing—is a giant step backwards for women’s reproductive rights. In my experience, women are our own biggest critics when it comes to choosing to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. They beat themselves up, not just in the moment, but often for years afterwards. As I wrote about in this post about how women want their doctors to treat them, women seeking to terminate a pregnancy need our love, not our judgment.
Put yourself in this woman’s position.
She just got accepted to law school when she finds out that she’s knocked up by the boyfriend who just broke her heart. Or she already has four kids she’s struggling to care for and got pregnant in spite of her IUD and condoms. Or her uncle molested her. Or some dude she barely knows at her college raped her. Or she just doesn’t want to be a mother—at least not right now.
While I’ve encountered a few frustrating women who use abortion as birth control, these women are rare in my experience. Most women are tearful in my exam room. When I hug them, they melt into a puddle of conflicting emotions. And when I’ve performed their abortions, they’ve sent me flowers—not just because I safely helped them through a rough time, but because I did it with love.
I’m no longer performing surgery of any kind, and I live in California, so this law doesn’t directly apply to me. But I was just in Texas on my book tour for What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend. And I was speaking to women at universities across the state. When I think of these friggin’ powerful women having their rights stripped from them, it kills me.
We can’t let this happen.
This is just yet another in a series of attempts to undermine a woman’s right to choose whether she becomes a mother, and as harmless as it may sound, I know the truth. This is not just a little jelly on the belly. This is emotional blackmail. Legislators think they can prey upon a woman’s tendency to be sensitive, caring, and compassionate. They think they can guilt us into changing our minds and becoming mothers when we’re not ready. They want to punish women for their choice by putting them through a process that could result in post-traumatic stress disorder.
I’m sorry, but the decision of whether or not to perform an ultrasound should rest between the doctor and her patient. Period. The government has no right to mess with a woman’s emotions when she’s already likely to be emotionally gutted. We women are friggin’ powerful. It’s not that we’re not eternally resilient and can’t handle it. But why pour acid on a wound when what a woman in that situation needs is compassion?