Mandatory ultrasound bill giant step back for women

Posted on May 19, 2011

Houston Chronicle Opinion, May 7, 2011 by Beverly McPhail

Sunday is Mother’s Day, when women are celebrated for their roles as loving and dedicated mothers. However, this year the celebration is diminished with the passage of the mandatory ultrasound bill, which attempts to control and constrain women’s very choices about becoming mothers. According to the Guttmacher Institute, six in 10 women who have abortions are mothers, and their primary reason for having an abortion is to better care for the children they already have. This law represents oppressive government regulation of women’s most private decisions that should send a chill up the spine, and a shudder through the uterus, of every Texas woman.

The ultrasound law requires that women undergoing an abortion submit to a mandatory ultrasound as well as hear the physician describe the sonogram’s image, with few exceptions. The bill is objectionable on many counts: It intrudes upon the doctor-patient relationship, it treats women like feeble-minded children who do not know their own minds or the consequences of their actions, and the 24-hour requirement between the ultrasound and abortion (with an exception for women who live more than 100 miles from the nearest licensed abortion provider) will result in multiple trips to a clinic, thereby increasing both expense and missed work time.

What is especially galling about the bill’s passage is that some male sponsors of the legislation believe that the new law “empowers” women, even while many women report feeling quite the contrary. Those who use the language of female empowerment are co-opting language from the women’s movement that values female autonomy and choice while passing a law that attempts to subvert female autonomy and choice. The dictionary definition of “mandatory” is “authoritatively ordered, obligatory, compulsory.” The term “mandatory empowerment” is an oxymoron.

The goal of the law is to dissuade women from having abortions, not empower them to make the best decisions for themselves and their families. Lawmakers who believe they are empowering women are only deluding themselves. The governor and legislators can put lipstick on this pig, but it is still a pig, and like many pigs in their pens, this one stinks.

Not only is this law an insult to women in Texas, a close reading of the Texas Penal Code, Section 22.011, suggests that the new law may also constitute a sexual assault upon women, which is a second-degree felony. The code defines a sexual assault as an offense in which a person intentionally or knowingly causes the penetration of the anus or sexual organ of another person by any means, without that person’s consent. Furthermore, the law stipulates that one condition of nonconsent is met when the actor is a public servant who coerces the other person to submit or participate.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 88 percent of abortions occur during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Because the fetus is so small at this stage, traditional ultrasounds performed through the abdominal wall, “jelly on the belly,” often cannot produce a clear image. Therefore, a transvaginal probe is most often necessary, especially up to 10 weeks to 12 weeks of pregnancy. The probe is inserted into the vagina, sending sound waves to reflect off body structures to produce an image of the fetus. Under this new law, a woman’s vagina will be penetrated without an opportunity for her to refuse due to coercion from the so-called “public servants” who passed and signed this bill into law.

One might argue that since a sonogram using a transvaginal probe is already routinely conducted by abortion providers, a mandatory transvaginal ultrasound is not that different. However, there is a vast difference between being vaginally penetrated by a health professional with one’s consent while undergoing a desired and legal medical procedure and a mandatory, state-ordered penetration that one does not have the option to refuse while also being forced to hear a doctor describe the ultrasound image. Uninvited penetration is rape, whether perpetrated by a man jumping out from behind the bushes or legislating from the state capitol.

During the last election cycle, Republicans at the state and national levels ran on platforms prioritizing jobs and limiting government regulation. However, like wolves in sheep’s clothing, once in office they quickly declared war on women by moving to limit hard-won reproductive rights through intrusive expansions of government power. Although Sarah Palin supports shooting wolves from airplanes in Alaska, hunting wolves in sheep’s clothing in Texas is best accomplished at the ballot box. Lord, save us from hypocritical men who in an ignorant attempt to inform or protect women from ourselves instead perpetrate an assault upon our bodies and our dignity.

McPhail is a Houston writer.

Posted in: Texas