Win­dow to The Womb

The Washington Post Sunday - - Outlook - By William Sale­tan

round the coun­try, ul­tra­sound bills are all the rage. Most of them re­quire clin­ics to of­fer each wo­man an ul­tra­sound view of her fe­tus. Mis­sis­sippi en­acted a law on March 22. Idaho fol­lowed on April 3. Ge­or­gia’s leg­is­la­ture passed a bill a week ago; South Carolina’s is about to do the same.

Crit­ics com­plain that th­ese bills seek to “bias,” “co­erce” and “guilt-trip” women. Come on. Women aren’t too weak to face the truth. If you don’t want to look at the video, you don’t have to. But you should look at it, and so should the guy who got you preg­nant, be­cause the de­ci­sion you’re about to make is as grave as it gets.

Are ul­tra­sound push­ers try­ing to bias your de­ci­sion? Of course. But of all the things they do to “in­form” your de­ci­sion, ul­tra­sound is the least oner­ous.

Look at the Se­nate’s Un­born Child Pain Aware­ness Act, which would or­der your doc­tor to de­liver a 193-word script full of de­bat­able con­gres­sional find­ings about your “pain-ca­pa­ble un­born child.” Ul­tra­sound cuts through that kind of garbage. The im­age on the mon­i­tor may look like a blob, a baby or nei­ther. It cer­tainly won’t fol­low some sen­a­tor’s script. All it will show you is the truth.

ILast week, an­tiabor­tion ac­tivists won their big­gest vic­tory in 40 years: a Supreme Court de­ci­sion up­hold­ing the Par­tial Birth Abor­tion Ban Act. This week, they an­nounced their next tar­get. They want bills that, in the words of Douglas John­son of the Na­tional Right to Life Com­mit­tee, “re­quire the abor­tion­ist to of­fer the wo­man an op­por­tu­nity to view an ul­tra­sound” of her fe­tus.

For the ac­tivists, this segue is log­i­cal. For the court, it means trou­ble. It threat­ens to un­ravel the latest ju­di­cial com­pro­mise and, with it, Roe v. Wade. In its April 18 rul­ing, the court treated abor­tion like an ob­scen­ity — some­thing that could be done but not out in the open. “Par­tial-birth” abor­tions, the court rea­soned, could be banned be­cause they oc­cur out­side the wo­man’s body. Other abor­tions need not be out­lawed, be­cause the womb con­ceals them.

But ul­tra­sound dis­solves this dis­tinc­tion. It makes ev­ery fe­tus and ev­ery abor­tion vis­i­ble. It could force the court to re­nounce ei­ther the par­tial-birth ban or the right to abor­tion.

For 34 years, the court al­lowed states to reg­u­late, but not ban, abor­tions where the fe­tus wasn’t vi­able out­side the womb. That era ended on April 18. Jus­tice An­thony M. Kennedy, writ­ing for the court, ruled that the par­tial-birth ban was com­pat­i­ble with Roe be­cause abor­tions other than the par­tial-birth kind would re­main le­gal.

Kennedy noted that the se­lec­tive ban was ra­tio­nal be­cause par­tial-birth abor­tion, un­like in­ter­nal dis­mem­ber­ment, “oc­curs when the fe­tus is par­tially out­side the mother” and there­fore has a “dis­turb­ing sim­i­lar­ity to the killing of a new­born in­fant.” In other words, it’s ra­tio­nal and con­sti­tu­tional to ban abor­tions based on how they look, not what they are. Killing the fe­tus inside the womb is okay, be­cause the pub­lic won’t see it.

That’s one rea­son why abor­tion op­po­nents are turn­ing their at­ten­tion from par­tial-birth abor­tion to ul­tra­sound, from the fe­tus out­side the body to the fe­tus within it. They’re try­ing to open, in their words, a “win­dow to the womb.”

Abor­tion op­po­nents are of­ten car­i­ca­tured as stupid cre­ation­ists who just want to put women back in their place. Science and free in­quiry are sup­posed to help them get over their “love af­fair with the fe­tus.” But science hasn’t co­op­er­ated. Ul­tra­sound has ex­posed the life in the womb to those of us who didn’t want to see what abor­tion kills. The fe­tus is squirm­ing, and so are we.

A’d pro­pose four amend­ments to any ul­tra­sound bill. First, the gov­ern­ment should pick up the tab. Sec­ond, the wo­man should also be of­fered a six-hour video­tape of a scream­ing 1-year-old. Third, any ju­ror in a death-penalty case should be of­fered the chance to view an ex­e­cu­tion. Fourth, any­one buy­ing meat should be of­fered a video from a slaugh­ter­house. If my first amend­ment passed but the oth­ers failed, I’d still vote for the bill.

To abor­tion op­po­nents, ul­tra­sound is a test of pro-choice sin­cer­ity. Mary Spauld­ing Balch, the state leg­isla­tive di­rec­tor for the Na­tional Right to Life Com­mit­tee, says peo­ple who re­sist ul­tra­sound bills are “pet­ri­fied that women will change their minds af­ter see­ing their ba­bies.”

Maybe. But abor­tion op­po­nents seem equally pet­ri­fied that women won’t change their minds. They rigged Mis­sis­sippi’s ul­tra­sound law with a clause that would ban nearly all abor­tions if Roe is over­turned.

Now the Supreme Court has echoed that equiv­o­ca­tion, rul­ing that one way to “in­form” women of the evil of par­tial-birth abor­tion is to crim­i­nal­ize it. But the clash be­tween ul­tra­sound and the par­tial-birth ban is ul­ti­mately a choice be­tween in­for­ma­tion and pro­hi­bi­tion. To trust the ul­tra­sound, you have to trust the wo­man.

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