Greg Freiherr, Industry Consultant

Greg Freiherr has reported on developments in radiology since 1983. He runs the consulting service, The Freiherr Group.

Blog | Greg Freiherr, Industry Consultant | April 04, 2012

Abortion and the Politics of Forced Ultrasound

Transvaginal scan shows embryo measuring 39.1 mm. Speech-and-display requirements in some state laws require visualization and verbal description of the embryo before women can undergo an abortion.

Increasingly in this country, diagnostic ultrasound is being used to advance a political agenda.  Last month the Virginia state legislature passed, and the governor signed, a law that, effective July 1, requires women seeking an abortion to submit to a fetal ultrasound. In Texas, not only must such an ultrasound be performed, but also the fetus must be described to the patient in terms of its heart rate, its size and the length of its limbs. North Carolina and Oklahoma have laws with similar “speech-and-display” requirements. Four other states are considering such laws. 

While the intent may be to dissuade patients from going through with a scheduled procedure, forcing fetal ultrasound exams on the medical community may have a wider and longer term effect. Given the requirements placed on them and their staff, some physicians may choose not to perform abortions, thus reducing access to these procedures. And, if clinics don’t receive reimbursement from the state or insurance for the mandated ultrasound exams, the cost of these exams may be added to the price of abortions, creating a financial barrier that weighs heaviest on low-income women.

The irony is that a technology as benign as ultrasound has been hijacked for such a purpose. The extraordinary safety of ultrasound is the reason those who specialize in women’s health make as much use of it as they do. More is the pity that a tool optimized to help women is being subverted to bully them — and that those who have sworn to protect their patients are being turned into political instruments that violate them.

Because the vast majority of abortions occur during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, an intravaginal transducer often must be used to visualize the fetus. Laws that require such visualization, therefore, require women seeking a legal medical procedure to undergo an invasive one that they do not want and is not medically necessary.

As the momentum grows for this subversion of ultrasound, healthcare providers must decide: Will they be foot soldiers in a politically charged army or the conscience of their profession who speak out against the political use of medical technology.

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