The Trans-Vaginal Ultrasounds You Didn’t Hear About: Ignoring Anti-Choice Extremism in Texas

Posted on April 2, 2012

Global Comment, April 2, 2012 by Jessica Luther

In February, the state of Virginia became a focal point of attention in the national media when its legislature attempted to pass a forced ultrasound law that required doctors to know the gestational age of the fetus before performing an abortion. For people in the earliest stages of pregnancy, the medical procedure to determine gestational age is a transvaginal ultrasound, which is invasive [TW on link] and medically unnecessary in many cases.

Amy Poehler joked about “transvaginal airlines” on Saturday Night Live, Jon Stewart addressed the issue directly on The Daily Show, and roughly 1000 people showed up to the Virginia State Capitol to silently protest the bill (for a comprehensive list of the many ways that pop culture reacted to the Virginia Bill, see Irin Carmon’s piece at Salon). Then, on Wednesday, February 22, the governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, released a statement, which read, in part:

I am requesting that the General Assembly amend this bill to explicitly state that no woman in Virginia will have to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound involuntarily.

Eventually the bill, sans the transvaginal part, passed the Senate, was approved by the House, and signed into law by the Governor.

When McDonnell released his statement saying transvaginal ultrasounds were too extreme for him, the collective nation released a sigh of relief.  On that same day, Texas had already had in practice forced transvaginal ultrasounds for 144 days.

Texas vs. Virginia

Texas’ forced ultrasound bill (HB15) was filed on February 11, 2011, a full year before Virginia’s came to prominence. State legislators voted on it in May and Governor Rick Perry signed it into law on May 19. It went into effect on September 1 and was enforceable as of October 1, 2011. The Center for Reproductive Rights did file a lawsuit against the bill that led to an injunction on August 30, 2011 (later overturned by the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals). That injunction did not apply to the forced ultrasound part of the law, however. According to the CRR, with whom I spoke,

The preliminary injunction only blocked the provisions of the law that forced doctors to describe ultrasound images to the woman, even if she said no. The requirement that ultrasounds MUST be performed before an abortion procedure, among many other provisions of the law, went into effect September 1 (and enforced as of October 1).

HB15 was the very first piece of legislation heard by the Texas legislature in 2011. Governor Perry dubbed this bill “an emergency priority” despite the fact that the state was in a budgetary crisis (one that the newly re-elected Perry did not announce until the day of his inauguration) and, presumably, had much larger problems to manage. According to Abby Rapoport,

Texas Democrats, after all, did their best to put up a fight and make a good show for the media covering the legislative debate. One delegate stood armed with a vaginal probe, trying to detail just how invasive the procedure would be. Despite being outnumbered two-to-one in the Texas House, Democrats threw a slew of points of order at the measure until one finally delayed the bill. When everyone returned to restart the debate, Democrats came up with amendment after amendment, including an attention-getter that allowed an unmarried woman who decided against an abortion to get a court order requiring the man who get her pregnant to undergo a vasectomy (assuming he had fathered at least two other children out of wedlock with different women.) On its second time around, the Texas House debated the measure for seven hours. It ultimately passed and eventually then was signed by Governor Rick Perry in a big ceremony. Perry had given the bill priority status during the session by naming it an emergency item.

Major news sites wrote about the story and over 600 people protested at the behest of Planned Parenthood. Bloggers referred to the law as “rape-ish” and described the procedure as “a probe stuck up inside her vagina” [TW for links] while Reuters used the word “trans-vaginal” in their write up of the law (some people have told me that they believed the outrage in Virginia stemmed from the use of that particular word and the images it puts into people’s minds).

Despite all of this, the Texas law did not get the attention that Virginia one did (Rachel Farris has graphs that show this nicely and Rapoport noted that much of what was written about the Texas ultrasound law was written in Texas).

Emily Ramshaw (for The Texas Tribune) discussed the reasons for the disparity in reporting between Virginia and Texas. She proposed the following causes to explain the phenomena: 1) Virginia is considered a battleground state while Texas is not; 2) These sorts of things are expected from a state like TX; and 3) Virginia’s bill was proposed in the wake of a flood of national attention to the struggle over reproductive rights (Komen withdrawing monetary support from Planned Parenthood and the US House of Representatives holding hearing on birth control without including any women in the proceedings).
I would add that a major part of what happened with Virginia is that many national reporters live and work in Northern Virginia because of its proximity to Washington, D.C. Suddenly forced transvaginal ultrasounds were creeping farther north, away from the GOP-controlled states and into the backyards (and possibly the bodies) of the very people who control much of the national narrative.

For Rapoport, it was easy to pin down the reason: “it’s hard not to think that for many, Texas winds up getting written off as a state where extreme stuff just happens without much recourse.” Andrea Grimes has described it thusly, “In my experience as a Texas feminist, even progressive people just kind of expect that Texas is shitty and backwards and oh well, that’s just what happens there with those poor, ignorant Red Staters so what can you do?”


The idea that Texas is where “extreme stuff just happens” is not borne out of thin air. We execute people more than most states and often even in controversial cases. We have high rates of poverty, teen pregnancy, and cervical cancer and yet cut government services that could alleviate some of this burden. The Texas Board of Education famously re-wrote the history in school textbooks to fit a more conservative idea of the events of the past. Additionally, following eight years of George W. Bush’s presidency and the recent spectacular failure of Governor Rick Perry‘s presidential run, Texas’ image in the popular national media is based on the outrageous conservatism of these two men. We are seen as a GOP dreamland full of yokels who want to secede and who pack pistols in order to do a grocery store run (or a morning jog).

Yet the make up of the state is much more complicated and diverse than the picture often painted about it. Texas is incredibly urban but has an immense amount of rural space (over 85% of the state lives in an urban space despite most of the land being rural). The eastern portions of the state feel southern. There is a large Latino and Tejano population throughout, especially on the border with Mexico. Western Texas blends together our ideas of the southwest and the Wild West. The northern sections of the state resemble the plains more than anything.

No matter the narrative or stereotypes perpetuated about Texas, there is nothing monolithic about this state. Yet the overriding narrative of Texas as backwards or a lost cause often leads people to turn a blind eye to problems here when we most need them to pay attention.

The Consequences of This Oversight

There was another moment where Virginia eclipsed Texas in the national narrative.

On February 23, the Virginia State Senate killed its personhood bill. While this was great news, it came on the same-day heels as word that Texas had decided to turn down millions of dollars in federal Medicaid aid in order to attempt to de-fund Planned Parenthood. Those federal Medicaid dollars sustained the Women’s Health Program, which gave preventative reproductive health care to thousands of Texans. By turning down that money to make an ideological stand, Governor Perry and his administration effectively withdrew the reproductive health care of 130,000 people. Yet this news was drowned out by Virginia that day.

While eventually the national attention did swing to Texas, largely because Planned Parenthood shined the spotlight on us, in this moment when two new stories broke about reproductive rights, it was maddening as a Texan to see how few people seemed to care about what was happening here.

When progressive media, movements, people only turn their attention to Texas (or the deep south or the plains or any flyover state) when we serve to either bolster the stereotypes they expect or to serve as the joke at the end of their punch line, the people who suffer are Texans, often low-income, minority, and/or immigrant peoples. These Texans are not stereotypes or punch lines and so they garner little notice, attract little sympathy, and remain in the shadow of their counterparts in so-called “swing states.”

This then plays into a troubling pattern. As Rapoport explains, “Extreme stuff happens because so many are disengaged from the process, and they’re disengaged from the process because there’s little sense that anything can change.” The GOP continues to funnel money into states like Texas (especially Texas) as national progressive movements throw their hands up and leave those of us living in the middle of these areas to fend for ourselves. When we are weighed down by that burden and we look beyond our state borders, we are met with jeers like, “if people in Texas aren’t fighting back, why bother?” And so the cycle begins anew, the silence continuing to punish the ones who can least afford it.

Where do we go from here?

Of course, there is no way to give equal footing to all stories or all pieces of anti-choice legislation that are passing through state legislatures. I’m not asking for that. Yet something must change. The status quo is not good enough.

If it was enough for the progressives of this nation to rally around Virginia when it was possibly going to have forced transvaginal ultrasounds, it is necessary for progressives to now fight for Texas. Ignoring what is happening in the lone star state only serves to hurt a large and vulnerable population of people: 4.4 million Texans alone live below the poverty line (that is half of Virginia’s TOTAL population) and they are and always will be the first group affected by all anti-choice legislation.

It is day 184 of forced transvaginal ultrasounds in Texas with no end in sight. More than just Texans should care about that and Texans should not be the only ones tasked with spreading that knowledge. As long as progressives continue to turn a blind eye or to shrug away what is happening here, as long as they continue to tell themselves and each other that Texans do not matter (or do not matter as much), this will continue.

Deva at Abortion Gang has ideas about how to change things at the state level. Bloggers can follow the lead of people like Misty Clifton at Shakesville, Akiba Solomon at Colorlines, Jessica Pieklo at Care2, and Robin Marty at RH Reality Check whose coverage of reproductive rights is comprehensive and spans the entirety of the United States. Imani Gandy is creating the Team Uterati wiki where we can put our collective knowledge so that progressives fighting against reproductive rights rollbacks have a comprehensive and communal space.

We need, need, need to bring forward the voices that privilege often silences – people of color, low-income people, immigrants, young women, trans* people – and give them space to lead. More likely than not, they are going to discuss people and spaces that do not receive nearly enough attention, if any at all.

Finally, we need to stop shrugging off the concerns and cries of people in states that feel like lost causes or bastions of GOP influence because those people matter too. We need to stop telling people to move (most can’t), to secede (we don’t want to), or to start fighting (we already are, you just aren’t looking).

When we silence voices and engage in this defeatist language, it helps no one. And right now, we all, especially those of us here in Texas, need all the help we can get.