Averting Their Eyes from Assault on Women’s Health

Carole Joffe

A new Oklahoma law permits women seeking abortion to avert their eyes while an ultrasound is performed -- but requires them to hear a description of what the ultrasound is displaying.

"Nothing in this section shall be construed to prevent a pregnant
woman from averting her eyes from the ultrasound images required to be
provided to and reviewed with her." This is the "good news" of an
egregious law recently passed in Oklahoma making ultrasounds mandatory
for abortion patients. But though I read the law carefully (available here in its entirety),
I couldn’t find anything allowing women to also cover their ears during
the ultrasound. This is unfortunate, because the law requires that
those performing the ultrasound "provide a simultaneous explanation of
what the ultrasound is depicting," and also "provide a medical
description of the ultrasound images, which shall include the
dimensions of the embryo or fetus, the presence of cardiac activity, if
present and viewable, and the presence of external members and internal
organs, if present and viewable." Even those women who are aborting a
pregnancy caused by rape or incest are compelled to undergo such
mandated ultrasounds.

Ultrasounds have become one of the key weapons of anti-abortion
legislators. A number of states require abortion providers to make
ultrasounds available; a handful of others make viewing mandatory, but
Oklahoma is the first state, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, that requires a woman to hear the description of an ultrasound image.

The Oklahoma law has the added perverse feature of preventing a
woman from suing her doctor if he or she intentionally withholds other
information about the fetus, such as an anomaly. So, women are forced
to hear something they may not choose to hear, but are not entitled to
information that would be presumably of critical importance to them.
Such is the state of public policy when it is in the hands of
anti-abortion fanatics.

The Center has filed a challenge against the law,
on behalf of a clinic in Tulsa, Reproductive Services, arguing that
this law "profoundly intrudes upon a patient’s privacy, endangers her
health, and assaults her dignity."

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This Oklahoma law is particularly interesting to me, because I
am in the midst of writing a book on contemporary abortion provision. I
have been of course documenting the many assaults–-physical, legal, and
cultural-–on abortion providers, but I also have been writing about what
constitutes good abortion care. After interviewing and observing
numerous providers, and participating in their listserv discussions, I
realize that one of the core principles of this field is that all women
can’t be treated alike. One-size-fits-all policies just don’t make
sense, given the different needs and backgrounds of abortion patients.
I have been continually struck by the accounts I have heard of
providers attempting to "meet the woman where she is at," to quote a
phrase frequently used in this field.

For example, the fact that abortion providers are predictably
appalled by the Oklahoma law does not preclude their recognition that
some abortion patients do in fact wish to see their ultrasound. And
these women’s requests are honored. Common sense.

But it is not common sense-–or common decency-–that is driving
the Oklahoma legislators who passed this law. Rather, the intent here,
as with so many of the hundreds of anti-abortion bills that have been
passed, is to harass patients and make operations difficult, if not
impossible, for the provider community. In the case of Reproductive
Services, the clinic challenging the law, the legislators may be
successful. An article in the Tulsa World quotes the administrator of
the clinic saying her facility will probably not be able to survive financially
if this law is upheld, because of the added costs. The clinic,
incidentally, also provides contraceptive services and adoption
counseling and referrals.

As one of the wisest women I know in the abortion providing
community frequently says, when confronted with such blatantly cruel
legislation, "Dude, where’s our country?"

This post first appeared on the Beacon Broadside.

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