TRANSVAGINAL ULTRASOUNDS! Or How We Missed the Real Story in Virginia

Posted on 4.18.2012 by Amy

To demonstrate why we need stories from abortion care workers in the struggle for reproductive justice, I want to share a little story about an recent legislative mishap you may remember...

A couple months ago, some legislators in Virginia decided to pass a law mandating ultrasounds for women seeking abortions. Their thinking seemed to center on a few monkey-brained assumptions:

  1. Women seeking abortions may not realize they’re pregnant until they have an ultrasound.

  2. After viewing a blurry, black-and-white blob, women will become so overcome with motherly emotions that their financial/logistical/emotional/spiritual reasons for seeking abortion will disappear.

  3. Women can’t make decisions for themselves. Legislators should make decisions for them.

  4. People who know nothing about medicine are qualified to dictate medical policy.

The legislators might have benefited from speaking to someone in abortion care who had a basic grasp of what happens between providers and patients. If they did, they might have realized:

  1. Most women seeking abortion realize they are pregnant.

  2. Ultrasounds are routinely provided as part of abortion care.

  3. The level of detail required in the ultrasound image would mandate a TRANSVAGINAL ULTRASOUND for many women in early pregnancy.

Then something glorious happened. People who had a basic grasp of medical knowledge noticed that the law would require a specific medical procedure that involved The rage of the feminist community was unleashed upon Virginia. More than a thousand people protested outside the State Capitol and some were arrested. The word “vagina” was EVERYWHERE.

“Transvaginal,” said the TV anchors.

“Vaginal probe,” agreed the newspapers.

“Holy crap!” said those of us unaccustomed to seeing the word “vagina” in such places.

Many decried the bill as state-sponsored rape. Here, the feminist community may also have benefited from the wisdom of abortion care workers, who might have noted that transvaginal ultrasounds are in fact a routine medical practice that clinics often use to accurately diagnose gestational age.

Some in the world of abortion care worried that patients might come to see all transvaginal ultrasounds as rape. Others hoped patients would understand it was the legislative force -- not the actual probe itself -- that was a violation of will. For the most part, these voices were drowned out by sound bites.

The outcry forced Governor Bob McDonnell and the Republican legislators to back down, instead passing a watered-down version of the bill that required an abdominal ultrasound and the offer of a TRANSVAGINAL one.

But the debate ignored another key provision of the Virginia law -- one that many in abortion care believed would far more dramatically impact the lives of women seeking abortions. The bill required a waiting period between the ultrasound appointment and the abortion -- you know, so women could get a good hard look at that fuzzy, black-and-white picture. Women who lived within 100 miles of the clinic would need to wait 24 hours. Those who lived more than 100 miles away would need to wait two hours.

I spoke to Rosemay Codding, Director of Patient Services at Falls Church Healthcare Center in Virginia. She suggested it was the waiting period that worried her most, not the transvaginal ultrasound requirement. For many patients it meant two days of childcare, two days off from work. Some women would need to wait a week between the ultrasound and the abortion because of their schedules, meaning the clinic’s diagnostic ultrasound -- you know, the one with an actual medical purpose -- would need to be repeated. Insurance companies bill patients every time they walk in the door, so it would mean two co-pays at least -- or even more for women without insurance.

“If you’re 99 miles away, you’re looking at a 200-mile drive,” she told me.

But the workers at this clinic in Virginia hardly had time to worry about this law, she went on. Because Virginia had passed a series of onerous TRAAP laws, part of a nationwide effort by anti-choicers aimed at stopping abortion by imposing ridiculous requirements on things like the size of a clinic’s janitor’s closet. I’m serious about that. That’s not a joke. The janitor’s closet is actually part of this law.

“We have a very nice janitor’s closet that is really well-organized,” sighed Codding.

The law requires things like eight-foot-wide hallways and a cavernous size for surgical rooms, she said. Already, thousands of dollars had been spent determining whether the clinic could come into compliance with the law -- or whether they would need to close.

The ultrasound mandate was an outrage, yes, but it was only one of many threats faced by providers in Virginia. And unlike the issue of TRANSVAGINAL ULTRASOUNDS, the TRAAP law received little coverage by the mainstream media.

And that is why I believe we need to listen to the stories of abortioneers. As we face unprecedented attacks on women’s access to abortion, we need to be informed about what a TRANSVAGINAL ULTRASOUND actually is and when it is necessary. We need to know the impact laws will have on the ground -- not just in theory, but in practice. When we listen, we may come to understand the situation is far more complicated -- and far more urgent -- than we may have imagined.