This week, North Carolina officials have been in court fighting to implement a state law that requires doctors to describe ultrasounds in detail immediately before allowing their patients to proceed with an abortion. Even if the patient closes her eyes and covers her ears to avoid hearing that information, the law would force physicians to continue speaking.
At the beginning of this year, a U.S. District Judge struck down that law for violating the First Amendment, saying it’s unconstitutional for doctors to be required to deliver an anti-abortion message approved by state lawmakers. North Carolina disagrees. State officials filed an appeal to the U.S Court of Appeal for the 4th Circuit in the hopes of getting that decision overturned.
In oral arguments this week, officials for the state claimed that the ultrasound law should be reinstated because it ensures that patients receive “relevant, truthful, real-time information” before their abortion procedure. North Carolina Solicitor General John Maddrey also told the panel of judges that the state has a legitimate interest in protecting the life of the fetus that abortion patients are carrying.
The groups opposing the law, on the other hand, submitted a brief to the appeals court arguing that North Carolina’s policy is a particularly egregious overreach into women’s personal medical decisions, even as “informed consent” measures become increasingly popular on the state level.
The law stipulates that a physician must conduct an ultrasound that gives “an obstetric real-time view of the unborn child” at least four hours before a woman may have an abortion procedure. During the ultrasound, the measure requires women to lie on an examination table — either naked from the waist down, covered by a drape, or with her clothing pulled down to expose her lower stomach.
It’s in this intimate setting that doctors must tell their patients about the fact that “the father is liable to assist in the support of the child” and “the woman has other alternatives to abortion, including keeping the baby or placing the baby for adoption,” as well as information about her fetus’ “anatomical and physiological characteristics.”
The plaintiffs in the ongoing lawsuit — which include the Center for Reproductive Rights, Planned Parenthood, and the American Civil Liberties Union — don’t mince words about exactly what North Carolina’s law will mean for doctors and patients forced to go through that scene.
“It commandeers unwilling physicians to use their own voice and expressive conduct to communicate the state’s message against abortion,” their brief states. “And it commandeers physicians to convey this message in a uniquely intrusive way — during a medical procedure while the patient is vulnerable and disrobed on an examination table with an ultrasound probe inside or on her.”
Of course, some women planning to have an abortion do want to look at an ultrasound before the procedure. But research in the field has found that when ultrasounds are compelled as part of state law, even the patients who would have chosen to see the images anyway “may have negative psychological and physical effects.” According to researchers from the University of California, San Francisco, removing a woman’s ability to make her own choice about the ultrasound makes her feel like she doesn’t have enough control over her abortion procedure as a whole.
It also communicates to women that they’re simply not capable of making their own decisions about their pregnancies. North Carolina’s solicitor general has been rather explicit about that in court this week; he argued that the state simply wants to ensure that abortion patients make a “mature and informed” choice on an important matter.
But women don’t need the state’s help with that. A large study published earlier this year found that the vast majority of women who decide to visit an abortion clinic have already made up their mind about ending their pregnancy, and viewing an ultrasound doesn’t sway them. Earlier research has confirmed that nearly 90 percent of women are “highly confident” about their decision to have an abortion when they first seek out services. And perhaps most importantly, about 61 percent of the women who have abortions already have at least one child — they’re not exactly ignorant to the realities of pregnancy, and they know what an ultrasound looks like.
The condescending framing of these type of abortion restrictions — which are just one example of many state laws that are ostensibly intended to “protect women” — isn’t lost on reproductive rights advocates. Last year, amid an increasing number of state-level attacks on abortion, the ACLU launched a “They Think We’re Stupid” campaign to highlight states’ inherent lack of confidence in women’s ability to figure out how to handle their own pregnancies.