The Oklahoma Law and My Ultrasound

Martha Kempner

On Tuesday, while the Oklahoma Legislature was voting to override a gubernatorial veto and reinstate a law requiring women to have ultrasounds before allowing them to have an abortion, I was, well, having an ultrasound.

On Tuesday, while the Oklahoma Legislature was voting to override a gubernatorial veto and reinstate a law requiring women to have ultrasounds before allowing them to have an abortion, I was, well, having an ultrasound. This is not the first state law that requires this procedure prior to abortion but this one takes it one step further and mandates that the doctor or technician set up a monitor so the woman can see it and that he or she describe the heart, limbs, and organs of the fetus.  The law does not make an exception for pregnancies caused by rape or incest. 

Perhaps, it was because I’d just gone through the procedure or perhaps it’s just the pregnancy hormones raging through my system but the thought of a woman being forced to go through this when all she wanted was to exercise her legal and moral right to terminate the pregnancy made me cry.  That kind of manipulation is cruel. 

My husband tried to console me by saying that I shouldn’t worry, at those very early ultrasounds the images are so murky and the fetus has so little resemblance to a human baby that it will not successfully convince any woman to change her mind.  He may be right – at my first scan, the fetus was more alien than baby. Then again, I could see and hear a heartbeat, and despite the fact that the fetus was smaller than a grape, the magnified images let me see a tiny developing spine.  We’ve all watched those stereotypical scenes in movies and sitcoms where a couple goes to the OB and are chatting, fighting, texting, or otherwise not paying attention until the sound of the heartbeat stops them cold and brings tears to their eyes.   Clearly, changing the mind of women who are seeking abortions is exactly what the lawmakers are hoping to do but I’m not sure that whether they succeed matters.  Just trying is degrading and damaging to women. 

I wanted to be pregnant, so for me the goal of the 8-week scan was to hear a heartbeat and confirm that this was a viable pregnancy.  After all, at that stage of pregnancy one doesn’t look pregnant or necessarily feel any different. It was heartening to learn that the home pregnancy test was right.  I wouldn’t exactly say that it was an emotional experience for me but the thought “okay, there really is something in there” kept going through my head.  In my opinion, this isn’t a thought that women seeking an abortion in early pregnancy should be forced to have. 

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Our society seems to have a romantic fantasy about the unplanned pregnancy that changes a woman’s life for the better.  Think about the Judd Apatow movie, Knocked Up, or the new Jenna Elfman sitcom, Accidently On Purpose.  We seem to enjoy the idea that an unexpected pregnancy can join two unlikely people together and created an instant loving family. One of the lawmakers who voted for this veto has clearly bought into such a vision saying that, “maybe someday these babies will grow up to be police officers and arrest bad people, or will find a cure for cancer.” In real life, though, it rarely works that way. 

Most women who seek abortions know what they want; they have made a well-reasoned, intelligent decision that for whatever reason — be it relationship, money, job situation, or long-term goals– carrying this pregnancy to term would not be good for them, for their families, or for the resulting child.  These women do not need somebody to say: “Really, are you sure? Before you say anything let me just show you a heartbeat, your baby’s heartbeat.”  Such questions are manipulative, patronizing, and unfair. 

Similarly, women who go to a clinic and are unsure of the option that is best for them should also not be exposed to such manipulations.  These women need to sit down with an informed and impartial counselor who has no agenda of her own and is not required to promote the agenda of conservative lawmakers.  

Unfortunately, the Oklahoma law has a second provision that is even more insidious.  This provision prevents women who have had a disabled baby from suing a doctor for withholding information about birth defects while the child was in the womb.  According to the New York Times, “…the bill’s sponsors maintain that it merely prevents lawsuits by people who wish, in hindsight, that a doctor had counseled them to abort a disabled child.”  That explanation seems suspect to me, and I agree with choice advocates who see this as designed to protect doctors who purposely mislead women to keep them from having abortions.

The ultrasound I had on Tuesday is referred to as an anatomy scan and typically takes place in the 20th week of pregnancy, the halfway point.  The 45-minute procedure goes over every centimeter of the developing fetus and carefully measures the arms, legs, brain, and kidneys.  It takes a detailed look at all four chambers of the heart, and checks blood flow through the umbilical cord.  And, for expectant parents who want to know, it can determine the biological sex by carefully examining the genitals.

There was, in fact, a monitor set up directly in front of me.  Half the time, my husband and I had no idea what we were looking at but certain things were obvious.  The head looked like a head, possibly one of skeleton, but a head nonetheless.  Each vertebrae of the spine was visible, and the hands and feet were unmistakable. Such tests answer the question “does it have ten fingers and ten toes?” long before birth. Of course, we all know that that age-old question is a bit of a stand-in for: “Is everything normal?” or “Is there anything wrong?”

If, the technician had found that there was no blood flow to one of the fetus’s kidney, that the heart was growing outside the its chest, or any other number of anomalies that can now be determined pre-birth, my husband and I would have had to make a decision about whether to continue the pregnancy.  In this case, we would have turned to the doctors not to “counsel us to abort a disabled child,” but to give us the information we needed to make that decision for ourselves.  To tell us based on the extent of the anomaly and the most up-to-date research what we could anticipate for this child.   The thought that the sonographer or the physician on call could withhold information from us in order to influence our decision sends shivers down my spine. 

In this pregnancy alone, I have had 6 sonograms, all performed by different technicians and physicians none of whom I have met more than once.  I have no idea what their personal views are on abortion and I shouldn’t have to care.  But this law, in essence, allows their opinions on abortion to be more important than my own. 

In truth, I was a little disappointed with technician to whom I was assigned on Tuesday.  While the other ones had smiled and said things like “oh that looks good” throughout the procedure, this one had a serious look on her face that bordered on a scowl and stayed quiet unless prompted.  Not the reassurance I needed.  At one point, confirming the amniocentesis’s finding that the fetus is a girl, she said, “yes, I don’t see a pee-pee.” I later joked to friends that the sex educator in me felt compelled to reply “ok, but do you see labia?” 

For women in Oklahoma, the technician who they pick out of the phone book or to whom they are referred is no joking matter – it can now mean a lifetime of raising a disabled child because somebody else thought they should.  Moreover, while I was able to trust my technician’s professional opinion despite our personality differences, until this law is struck down by a court, and I have to believe it will be, women in Oklahoma can no longer have such feelings of trust.   

And that, even without a system full of pregnancy hormones, is enough to make me want to cry. 

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