Why Do Right-Wing Extremists Have the Power to Force Doctors to Humiliate Women?

Of all the words one could have guessed that would completely shift the public discourse, “transvaginal” probably wouldn’t have rated very high before the month of February. Yet that simple word managed to finally draw national attention and outrage to an issue pro-choicers have been trying to highlight for years now -- the anti-choice enthusiasm for passing laws requiring women seeking abortion to endure harassment ultrasounds before being allowed to abort unwanted pregnancies.

Anti-choicers claim the laws are necessary for “informed consent,” an argument that bafflingly presumes that women seeking abortions aren’t aware that they’re pregnant. Pro-choicers correctly point out that the laws are both about putting obstacles between women and abortion, and most importantly, forcing unwilling doctors to convey the legislators’ intent to shame and harass women for getting abortions. But this debate about consent and the difference between medically necessary procedures and nuisance ones was hard to get across to the general public. That is, until the word transvaginal came into the picture, after legislators in Virginia tried to join states like Texas in requiring a mandatory ultrasound for abortion.

Once the word got out -- aided by Amy Poehler’s hilarious rant on “Saturday Night Live” -- the ugliness behind the requirement became crystal-clear. The visual image of an 8- to 10-inch probe entering a woman’s body neatly symbolized the pro-choice argument that the legislators passing this law are prurient misogynists who want to poke around in a woman’s most intimate decisions for no other reason than to shame and punish. Since that punishment involved literally penetrating a woman’s vagina, the comparisons to rape were obvious. Supporters of the bill just made it worse for themselves by trotting out the “she was asking for it by not being a virgin” excuse when this was pointed out to them, with Dana Loesch memorably suggesting that if you willingly have sex with a man, you forsake your right to say no to any form of penetration ever again.

Unfortunately, anti-choicers exploited the hazy area between the symbolic and the literal in response to the outcry. Virginia legislators didn’t retract the bill, but instead simply rewrote it to make the vaginal probe optional. Doing so implies that the only important objection to the bill was the physical act of penetration, when in fact for pro-choicers, the issue has always been about consent and a patient’s right to a safe and welcoming environment when she seeks care, even abortion care. Because the shame-and-blame ultrasound is on the tummy instead of in the vagina doesn’t really make it any better, since the objection is to legislators turning doctors into their surrogates, forcing the doctors to act out a ritualized shaming of abortion patients, even when doctors don’t think there’s any reason for an abortion patient to be ashamed.

This move reflects the right-wing response to the pro-choice outcry, which is basically to make this all about who is touching what body part, and not about consent and medical necessity. It is true, as Carole Joffe points out at Slate, that medically necessary ultrasounds ordered by doctors often use the very same transvaginal wand as the state-mandated ones. If you are focused strictly on the vagina and not the woman surrounding it--which is basically all anti-choicers are capable of doing--then the difference between an ultrasound offered for medical reasons and one forced for shaming and humiliation reasons could seem inconsequential to you. But for pro-choicers, who adhere to the belief that a woman’s worth is more about what’s between her ears than what’s between her legs, the difference is critical. Most of us can tell the difference between an uncomfortable action we endure for medical reasons and one that’s inflicted on us for no other reason than to cause pain. It doesn’t matter if the mandated ultrasound is internal or external; what matters is the fact that it’s being used by legislators to scare, insult and humiliate the patient.

Because the intentions behind the mandatory ultrasound are prurient and sadistic, Virginia legislators were careful to keep the shaming aspects of the whole ordeal in, even while removing the mandate for a vaginal ultrasound. Unlike with medically necessary ultrasounds, the doctors will be forced to try to find a fetal heartbeat, which is difficult and often impossible at the early gestational stages when most abortions occur, creating a bunch of pointless messing around for no other purpose than to elevate the patient’s discomfort. Additionally, the doctor will be required to record the woman’s reaction and put it in her file. Since both clinical experience and research shows that ultrasounds don’t change women’s minds about abortion--in fact, the majority of women are relieved to see that there’s not much there--the only purpose of recording the patient’s reaction is to make her feel self-conscious.

Unfortunately, our society is still so sexist that it’s much harder to get attention for women’s minds, feelings and lives than to get attention for their vaginas. Perhaps Virginia Republicans have gambled correctly in assuming that they can use the doctor’s office to taunt women, humiliate them, guilt-trip them, and harass them with ultrasounds, but as long as they lay off the vagina, no one will stop them. Let’s hope that proves not to be the case.


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