Transvaginal Ultrasound Isn’t Rape

Fellow pro-choicers: Let's stop the inflamed rhetoric. Who needs hyperbole? The truth of the GOP is frightening enough.

There’s a video and some photos making their way around the Internet of ridiculously outfitted riot cops at a protest against pre-abortion ultrasound imaging. The cops are attired as though they’re in a Michael Bay film, while the protest attendees look like audience members at a live taping of A Prairie Home Companion. Death Star Stormtroopers vs. cat-loving Quakers.

It’s good to see pro-choicers out on the streets. It makes a strong statement without words—which is best seeing as so many of the words they’ve been using have done women a disservice. Transvaginal ultrasound, in particular, has been something of a red herring. Pending legislation in Virginia that included pre-abortion transvaginal ultrasound became a rallying point for pro-choicers because it seemed so extreme: Could it be that politicians really wanted to unnecessarily shove probes into women’s vaginas for ideological reasons? Talk about intrusive government.

On Slate, Carol Joffe—longtime chronicler of the pro-choice movement—pointed out that transvaginal ultrasound is already a common part of the abortion procedure, and vilifying it would make it harder for abortion providers to do their work. Look at the websites of many abortion clinics—here’s an example—and you’ll see that ultrasound (generally done transvaginally in the first trimester) is pretty much de rigeur. This isn’t because the GOP got to these clinics; it’s because the procedure is used to determine how far along a woman is. Transvaginal ultrasound is also used in OB-GYN medicine as a diagnostic tool, so associating it with putting the devil inside your vagina is not, actually, in the service of women’s health.

Kudos to Joffe for speaking out. The rhetoric that prompted her piece was completely out of control. Transvaginal ultrasound was even compared to rape by several different activists and one legislator.

Lucky me, I was both raped and had an abortion with transvaginal ultrasound—though the two incidents were years apart—so I can speak from experience. A transvaginal ultrasound is nothing like rape. To say so delegitimizes rape survivors’ experiences and promulgates the old idea that rape is all about penetration. And from a language perspective, it’s maddeningly imprecise to suggest a gynecological procedure is akin to a violent crime. I’m not saying the transvaginal probe was sexytimes (though it’s no worse than a pelvic, frankly), but it didn’t remotely resemble what happened when I was raped. Ladies, we’ve all had Pap smears when we didn’t want them (which is always, now that I think of it)—our gynecologists are not rapists.

With all the hysteria about the GOP raping us with a stick, the issue of imaging got a little lost in the shuffle. In my experience, the ultrasound screen next to the hospital bed was the traumatic part—the understanding that I could turn my head and see something that had the potential to be my child. I don’t romanticize the fetus, mind you. I know all about the stages of development. But it was a simple fact: If I leave here now, that mustard seed could grow up to have my nose. I knew if I saw even a shadowy movement, I might lose my resolve—and that, of course, is exactly what the anti-choice folks are counting on. Had I been given 24 hours and provided with lots of information about the mustard seed’s growth and development, I can’t say what I would have done. But I can assure you nothing good could have come from that pregnancy.

It frightens me to think of a younger or more vulnerable woman lying on that table trying not to turn her head. I know the anti-choice folks think it’ll be great if someone looks at the screen, sees the Gerber baby, and decides to go ahead with that unplanned pregnancy, or if she comes back 24 hours later to say thanks but no thanks. But the GOP won’t want to live with the results—not if they’re in office, anyway. They’re not especially fond of single mothers now, so it’s hard to imagine why they want more of them.

Those in the pro-choice movement need to choose tactics that are responsible to all women’s issues. There’s really no need to be inflammatory: What Republicans want to do to women in this country is appalling enough without embellishment. The best we can do is get out onto the streets—whether in Garrison Keillor T-shirts or red-soled Louboutins—and speak with our feet.