By Miriam Stiefel, ACLU of Virginia Reproductive Freedom Project Intern
reprofreedom_justice scalesIf those in favor of restricting a woman’s private medical decisions saw shaming a woman into canceling her abortion as the goal, then Virginia’s mandatory 24-hour ultrasound law may be a colossal failure.  Since March 7, 2012, when former Governor McDonnell signed Virginia’s mandatory ultrasound bill into law, Virginia women have been subjected to a burdensome 24-hour wait before receiving an abortion.  This tactic, used across the country, is based on the false claim that abortion providers hide ultrasound imaging from women seeking abortions to prevent them from changing their minds.
Is this claim true?  In short, no, but what that means for women living in states that mandate ultrasounds prior to abortion is vital for women’s health advocates to understand.
In a study by Obstetrics & Gynecology, of 15,575 women that went in for an abortion, 42 percent decided not to even look at the results of their ultrasound.  And, of those that didn’t look, 99 percent proceeded with their decision to terminate.  Of those that did look, 98.4 percent terminated, making the difference between the groups less than a percentage point, totaling about 17 women out of over 15,000. The research shows that making ultrasounds mandatory does not impact women who are certain they want an abortion and only slightly impacts women who are undecided when they go in.
Unfortunately for Virginia women, while they may not be dissuaded by an ultrasound picture, Virginia’s requirement that women must wait 24-hours before receiving an abortion after their ultrasound does cause a heavy burden on women who must travel at least twice to their abortion provider, find child care, pay for lodging, and miss work.  The hoops established by the 24-hour ultrasound law highlight how mandatory ultrasound laws are not about informed consent, but about restricting access to abortion.
RH Reality Check notes, “anti-choice activists behind these laws are hoping the existence of this law leads you to believe that abortion doctors are deliberately concealing the facts of pregnancy from their patients...”  However, many abortion opponents actually support concealing accurate information about pregnancy health care from a woman by supporting non-medical facilities called Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPCs).  CPCs provide medically inaccurate information to women in an attempt to dissuade them from seeking abortions.
To make matters worse, Virginia’s mandatory ultrasound law supports the efforts of CPCs.  Women may rely on the non-medical facilities to obtain a mandatory ultrasound because the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) includes CPCs on their list of no-cost ultrasound providers, a list required by Virginia’s mandatory ultrasound statute.  In a study of Virginia’s CPCs, “40 CPCs shared medically erroneous information that abortion causes long-term psychological damage, including suggesting that women who have abortions can ‘get eating disorders, become alcoholic, or become drug addicts,’ and that ‘the sound of a vacuum would always bring back flashbacks of the abortion.’”
While no woman plans to have an abortion, every woman deserves the opportunity to make the best decision for her circumstances.  The study in Obstetrics & Gynecology shows that we must trust women and respect the real-life decisions women and their families face every day.  Information should not be provided with the intent or result of shaming, judging, or making a woman change her mind – we must ensure all patients get complete, accurate medical info on all their health care options, regardless of where they seek treatment.
Advocates for women’s health introduced a series of bills this legislative session to repeal mandatory ultrasound in Virginia.  To stay up-to-date on these bills and other pertinent issues impacting your reproductive freedom continue to follow our blog, and check out our Facebook page and Twitter!