Defeating Ultrasound Requirements to Protect Women's Health Access

In a significant decision last month, an Oklahoma County District Court ruled that a 2008 anti-choice law violated the state constitution.  The law in question (SB 1878) was more burdensome than any prior bill regulating pre-abortion ultrasounds passed in the country, requiring women to undergo an ultrasound and listen to a doctor describe fetal characteristics before consenting to the procedure.  Opponents argued that the law invades a woman's right to privacy and violates doctors' freedom of speech.  As Stephanie Toti, the lead attorney on the case from the Center on Reproductive Rights said, “[the law] demeans women’s capacity to make decisions and threatens abortion providers with arbitrary criminal sanctions.” 

Opponents Mobilize Against Ultrasound Bills:  The decision highlights the introduction across the country of similar bills.  In 2009 sessions, legislators rejected ultrasound bills in 18 of the 22 states where they were introduced.  While some bills required doctors to offer an ultrasound to women seeking an abortion, others mandated that women receive information detailing where they could undergo an ultrasound and abortion counseling.  Such requirements invade a woman's right to medical privacy, intimidate health providers, and distrust women to make personal health choices. 

Progressives beat back right-wing bills that could have been damaging to women's health access.  Doctors and health services providers agree that pre-procedural ultrasounds are medically unnecessary, an argument that worked to defeat some ultrasound bills.  Legislators worked with medical experts and members of local choice organizations in Wyoming to convince House committee members that the state should not require a woman to view an ultrasound before consenting to an abortion.  Wyoming legislators voted down HB 151 after personal testimony from Rep. Sue Wallis, who said that "[t]o have the state impose this obligation on them to go through with this unnecessary procedure is an insult to me as a woman, and an insult to me as a United States citizen."  Advocate groups experienced similar successes in defeating ultrasound legislation in Virginia and Kentucky.  After a pro-choice lobby day organized by Planned Parenthood of Virginia that attracted hundreds of activists, legislators rejected HB 2579, and coordination by the ACLU of Kentucky pushed legislators to defeat SB 79 (HB 191). 

The Harm to Women in States Passing Ultrasound Laws:  Although many ultrasound bills were defeated in 2009, legislation was enacted in Kansas (LB 238), Nebraska (LB 675), and North Dakota (HB 1371) and passed in at least one chamber in five other states.  All of the bills directed health providers to offer a woman an ultrasound prior to an abortion, but variations included requirements for a 24-hour waiting period after the viewing and listening to the fetal heartbeat if heart monitoring equipment is used.  By law, North Dakota providers must additionally report the number of women who agree or decline the ultrasound and decide to have an abortion after viewing the images. The Guttmacher Institute, which tracks and supports efforts to increase access to reproductive health services across the country, asserts that ultimately, "the requirements appear to be a veiled attempt to personify the fetus and dissuade a woman from obtaining an abortion."

Ultimately, ultrasound and waiting period requirements are not only an invasion of privacy, but also an excessive fiscal burden.  The Center for Reproductive Rights reports that young, low-income, and rural women are particularly affected by such laws because they often have fewer financial and transportation resources and can have difficulty finding childcare or taking a day off from work.  South Carolina legislators voted down SB 437 after members of the Friends of Planned Parenthood of the Lowcountry sent over 100 letters to state legislators, detailing how the law placed an undue burden on women, particularly those in rural or low-income communities.  Working together, pro-choice legislators and advocates can continue to beat back regressive bills and ensure that women from all communities have equal access to necessary care.

The Center on Reproductive Rights - Defending Human Rights: Abortion Providers Facing Threats, Restrictions, and Harassment
The Center on Reproductive Rights - Engaging Policymakers in the States
The Guttmacher Institute - State Center: Ultrasound Requirements
The Guttmacher Institute - State Policy: Requirements for Ultrasound
Planned Parenthood of Virginia - Reproductive Rights Report for the Virginia General Assembly