Though Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina all managed to get away with passing transvaginal ultrasound mandates for women seeking abortions with little national attention, it took my former home state of Virginia’s effort to do the same to bring people’s undivided attention to the anti-abortion movement’s long fight to make abortion as humiliating, expensive, difficult and unobtainable as constitutionally permissible. And not only did all that attention kill the Virginia bill (and a similar one in Pennsylvania), it touched off what some have taken to calling the GOP’s War On Women, though I’d argue these efforts started long before the election cycle.
But while many people weighed in on the mandate and its emotional weight for women forced to endure it, few women — with the notable exception of Carolyn Jones, who wrote about her encounters with the mandatory ultrasound law in Texas — wrote about what it’s like to go through one. Rather, quietly, woman after woman told me about having a transvaginal ultrasounds in other, medically-necessary contexts: to identify ovarian cysts, to help explain painful menstrual cycles and rule out cancer. All of them thought forcing women to undergo unnecessary transvaginal ultrasounds to prove a political point about abortion was horrific; none of them wanted to go on the record about what it was like to have an ultrasound wand inserted into their bodies.
So, with the help of the generous staff at Preterm in Cleveland, Ohio, I stepped out of my skirt and onto an examination table to have a completely unncessary transvaginal ultrasound, and I documented the experience, which you can watch below.
As you might be able to tell, it was vigorously uncomfortable — more than a typical pelvic exam, with which most women are very familiar. In part, it’s more uncomfortable because the technician has to press the wand directly against the areas she wants to get an image of — your uterus, Fallopian tubes and ovaries — so there’s more movement and more direct contact with pressure-sensitive areas of your body; you’re also not lying flat on your back to facilitate access to the upper reaches of your vagina; and you’re being penetrated with a longer, rigid object than is used in a regular pelvic exam. In my case, as the technician explained after, my uterus is “high,” or tilted toward my abdomen, so she had to tilt the wand accordingly — and because it was so uncomfortable, she halted the exam before fully exploring my Fallopian tubes or ovaries. If I had been pregnant (which I knew I was not), the exam might have lasted longer as she looked to rule out an ectopic pregnancy and locate the miniscule gestational sac.
It was not, however, like being raped, despite all the furor-generating headlines and “Doonesbury” cartoons that were printed. It was uncomfortable to the point of being painful, emotionally triggering (and undoubtedly is moreso for victims of rape or incest or any woman in the midst of an already-emotional experience) and something that no government should force its citizens to undergo to make a political point. But it wasn’t like being raped — and using language like that not only minimizes rape for its survivors but makes them and other women more frightened of the procedure, which has significant and important medical uses.
Notably, Preterm has a policy of performing ultrasounds on all patients seeking abortion, though Ohio law does not yet require it. For medical reasons, they use ultrasound to confirm pregnancies (in case of false positives), rule out ectopic pregnancies and physically locate the gestational sac in order to perform better, safer abortions. Patients that do not wish to undergo a transvaginal ultrasounds early in their pregnancies can opt to return at a slightly later date, when they are far enough along (though not too far along for a first trimester abortion) to be able to visualize something on the ultrasound.
But that, of course, is the choice of the patients and the medical professionals at Preterm. It’s not a choice to be made at a distance by elected officials with an ideological axe to grind, little medical knowledge and a belief that it’s acceptable to require doctors to put unnecessary instruments inside women’s bodies in an effort to achieve in practice what they can’t constitutionally pass into law: an end to abortion.
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