As anti-choice lawmakers impose increasing numbers of barriers between women and abortion, forced ultrasound laws have become a popular tactic at the state level. Ten states currently have laws on the book requiring doctors to perform an ultrasound before proceeding with an abortion; three of them mandate that the doctor must display and describe the image. Abortion opponents claim this step is necessary because, if women have the opportunity to see an image of their fetus, they’ll suddenly change their mind about ending a pregnancy.
But the actual scientific evidence on the subject doesn’t back up that claim. According to a new study published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology — one of the largest research projects into ultrasounds and abortion to date — the vast majority of women who seek out abortion services have already made up their mind. Looking an images of an ultrasound doesn’t sway them.
Researchers analyzed over 15,575 visits to a large, urban abortion provider in 2011. All of the patients received an ultrasound before continuing with the abortion procedure, and all of them were given the opportunity to look at the image. Most patients chose not to look at it. Women did opt to view the ultrasound about 42 percent of the time — and among those women, about 98 percent of them went on to have an abortion anyway. Looking an the ultrasound only had an impact among the seven percent of women who reported they didn’t feel very certain about ending the pregnancy. “Such viewing does not alter decisions of the large majority of women who are certain that abortion is the right decision,” the researchers concluded.
That aligns with previous, smaller studies into this area. In 2012, after reviewing the data from two separate studies on the impact of ultrasounds, University of California researchers concluded that women’s emotional responses to seeing an ultrasound can vary, but those emotions ultimately don’t lead them to cancel their abortion appointment. Other studies have reported that 87 percent of women are “highly confident” about their decision to have an abortion, and state requirements that are intended to give them time to change their minds — like forced waiting periods, mandatory counseling sessions, and ultrasounds — don’t change their mind. Furthermore, a full 90 percent of women say their primary reaction to ending a pregnancy is “relief” and report they don’t regret their decision, suggesting that further invention wouldn’t have changed that reality.
Researchers at the University of California’s reproductive health project, Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health (ANSIRH), emphasize that viewing the ultrasound is an important step for some patients. Abortion providers understand that, and won’t prevent their patients from looking at an ultrasound image if they request to see it. But ANSIRH notes that it’s important for this to remain a choice, and researchers are strongly opposed to state laws “that seek to mobilize images in particular ways to manipulate women’s decision-making.”
Ultimately, condescending state laws that assume women don’t understand what they’re doing when they approach an abortion provider misunderstand some fundamental realities about the people who seek abortion care. Anti-choice activists typically claim that women simply have no idea what abortion involves, or what their fetus might look like at a certain point of development. But about 61 percent of women having an abortion have already given birth to at least one child; they understand the biological realities of pregnancy, and they’ve seen an ultrasound before.