How Republicans Quietly Mandate Transvaginal Probes When They Think No One’s Paying Attention

During the height of last year’s outcry over the GOP’s “War on Women,” transvaginal probes became one of the most recognizable symbols of the Republican Party’s overreaching anti-abortion policies. Particularly when Virginia pushed forward with a controversial measure to require all women seeking abortions to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound, women’s health advocates decried the practice as “state-sponsored rape.”

Virginia legislators ultimately changed the language of their ultrasound bill to remove the mention of transvaginal probes. But stringent abortion restrictions don’t necessarily need specific “transvaginal” language to force women to undergo invasive, unnecessary medical procedures against their will. These are just a few examples of carefully-worded abortion bills that would ultimately require transvaginal probes — even though it’s not explicitly stated in the legislation:

— MICHIGAN: Talking Points Memo first reported that Michigan’s proposed ultrasound bill, HB-4187, is a bit more nefarious than it appears to be on the surface. The legislation doesn’t mention trasvaginal probes, but it does stipulate that the mandatory ultrasounds need to use the most modern equipment available, and provide “the most visibly clear image of the gross anatomical development of the fetus and the most audible fetal heartbeat.” Donna Crane, the policy director of NARAL Pro-Choice America, explained that language will require doctors to use transvaginal probes — which provide clearer images than the non-invasive ultrasound procedure.

— KENTUCKY: Women seeking abortions in Kentucky already have to undergo a state-mandated waiting period and a mandatory counseling session intended to talk them out of their decision. But SB-5, which just cleared a Senate committee on Thursday, would also require women to have an ultrasound before terminating a pregnancy. During Thursday’s committee hearing, state Sen. Paul Hornback (R) admitted something that the proponents of similar ultrasound bills in other states haven’t been as forthright about: the legislation would also require a transvaginal ultrasound for early pregnancies, since abdominal ultrasounds don’t work well before 12 weeks of pregnancy. Because the vast majority of abortions are performed during the first trimester, the vast majority of women will be subjected to a transvaginal probe.

— ARKANSAS: Last week, State Sen. Jason Rapert (R) introduced a “fetal heartbeat bill” to outlaw all abortion procedures after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, which can occur as early as six weeks of pregnancy. Women’s health advocates pointed out that, since a transvaginal ultrasound is the only way to detect the fetal heartbeat that early into a pregnancy, Rapert’s bill would also mandate invasive probes for all women seeking abortions. The growing controversy over the unintended consequences of the stringent abortion ban led Rapert to amend his bill earlier this week — updating the legislation’s language to specify it would ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat can be detected by using an abdominal ultrasound, at around 10 weeks of pregnancy.

— NORTH DAKOTA: If Rapert’s heartbeat ban initially had the unintended consequence of mandating transvaginal ultrasounds, then the same holds true for the extreme fetal heartbeat bills that have been proposed in other states. For example, North Dakota’s HB-1456 states that “an individual may not perform an abortion on a pregnant woman before determining, in accordance with standard medical practice, if the unborn child the pregnant woman is carrying has a detectable heartbeat” — and transvaginal ultrasounds are the standard medical practice for determining a fetal heartbeat in early pregnancies.

Even though ultrasounds are not considered medically necessary procedures for first-trimester abortions, 12 states currently require women to undergo one anyway. And according to NARAL Pro-Choice America, 13 new forced ultrasound bills have been introduced in 8 states since the beginning of 2013, a number the group says is all too common for the beginning of a new legislative session.


Donna Crane, NARAL’s policy director, explained to ThinkProgress that Republicans are playing “games of hide and seek” with this type of legislation. But the issue of invasive probes — as well as the fundamental issue at stake, the fact that women are forced to have an unwanted, unnecessary medical procedure simply because a legislator decided they should — has never gone away. “These bills are horrific, but they’re commonplace,” Crane said. “All they’re doing is changing the language. Virginia made a PR error in actually using a searchable word, ‘transvaginal,’ and they’re not likely to do that again. But the bills are still as severe as they ever were.”