Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Mandatory Ultrasounds: Chipping Away at Roe v. Wade

By Lucy ArnoldPublished May 1, 2013

null
This winter, Indiana lawmakers proposed S.B. 371, a measure intended to shut down a Planned Parenthood clinic by tightening regulations for abortion providers, among other anti-abortion provisions. One of the most controversial of those provisions, which was later removed due to outrage that gained national attention and threatened the successful passage of the bill, would have required abortion providers to perform an ultrasound upon a woman seeking an abortion.
This winter, Indiana lawmakers proposed S.B. 371, a measure intended to shut down a Planned Parenthood clinic by tightening regulations for abortion providers, among other anti-abortion provisions.  One of the most controversial of those provisions, which was later removed due to outrage that gained national attention and threatened the successful passage of the bill, would have required abortion providers to perform an ultrasound upon a woman seeking an abortion.  The doctor would then have to offer the image of the ultrasound to the woman, who would then have to submit a statement certifying her refusal to see the images or listen to the heartbeat to the state.  

The inclusion of this provision in the bill, which was already markedly anti-choice and had attracted a lot of attention, marks just one more instance in the rising trend of restricting access to abortion.  Despite the right to an abortion being a constitutional right, protected by the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, many states have added a number of regulations and restrictions on abortions, some intended to make it more difficult to physically receive an abortion, while others trying to prevent abortions by appealing to the emotional vulnerability of young, pregnant women and their families.  For example, some states require a 24-hour waiting period between a woman’s first visit to a provider and when the actual procedure will be performed.  This restriction intends to prevent abortions by forcing the woman to reconsider and making it difficult to get access to it; the waiting period requires women, some who may have traveled for hours, to miss work or spend money for lodging while they wait, which disproportionately affects low-income women.  Other popular restrictions include parental notification if the woman is under 18 or spousal notification—which many pro-choice advocates say could put the woman in a potentially dangerous situation of domestic violence.  By far the most invasive restriction, however, mandatory ultrasounds have no medical purpose (they are not required in order to perform an abortion) and only serve to force pregnant women to have a procedure intended for them to change their mind when they hear a heartbeat.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, 21 states regulate the provision of ultrasounds; two states require an abortion provider to perform an ultrasound and show or describe the image to the woman, six states require the ultrasound but allow the woman to choose whether to see the image, while the rest require that the woman have the option to have an ultrasound if she chooses.  The Family Research Council supports the adoption of ultrasound requirements, stating that “one study conducted in a pregnancy resource center in the U.S. reported that women planning to abort their child were 2-3 ½ times more likely to keep their children after viewing their ultrasounds.”  While this may seem that ultrasounds could prevent mothers from aborting children that they actually want, opponents of forced ultrasound believe the requirement manipulates the emotions of vulnerable women, proves a lack of respect for their already-made decisions, and goes against fundamental rights to privacy.  NARAL Pro-Choice America states that “in a free country, we don’t force anyone to undergo medical procedure against their will….Politicians have no place telling a woman she has to have a procedure she does not want and her doctor does not recommend.”

Though the ultrasound provision in S.B. 371 was eventually taken out of the proposed legislation several weeks after the introduction of the bill, many states are considering similar bills or amendments to enacted legislation that would have similar requirements, continuing the trend of enacting tighter restrictions on women seeking abortions and clinics that provide them.  Policymakers and advocates on both side of the issue expect some of these laws to be taken up by the Supreme Court in upcoming years, rendering the freedom to choose, a right that many feel was settled decades ago, an even more heated debate with even higher stakes for women.