The Scarlet Ultrasound: State-Sanctioned Rape as Punishment for Having Sex

Research and common sense both tell us that mandatory ultrasounds cannot be what proponents claim they are, a harmless attempt to impart information to a woman to help with her decision on abortion. Research shows that women don’t change their minds after viewing an ultrasound, but go ahead with the abortion anyway. Common sense should tell you why. The only real way that an ultrasound imparts information is if a woman doesn’t know she’s pregnant. But women don’t seek abortions unless they’re pregnant. At most, ultrasounds tend to show women seeking abortions that the embryo/fetus is smaller and less formed than they’ve probably been led to believe. Except for the thoughtless and the dim, it’s clear that mandatory ultrasounds therefore cannot have anything to do with giving information, much less convincing women not to have abortions.

So what is it about, then? Pro-choicers have long figured it was a matter of putting up more obstacles for women who have abortions, but mostly it’s about punishment. Since they can’t ban abortion outright and therefore jail or at least fine women who have them, anti-choicers instead will write disingenuous laws that dish out punishment in the guise of concern. It’s the modern day version of putting someone in the stocks, shaming someone as punishment. Except the Puritans at least waited until after you did the forbidden thing; conservatives are going to get you for even thinking about it.

What’s been fascinating about the uproar over the Virginia legislature passing a mandatory ultrasound is that conservatives are basically admitting that it’s about punishing women for seeking out an entirely legal abortion, a backdoor way of making the legal illegal by introducing mandatory punishments. It’s part of this month’s larger spasm of honesty about the misogyny underlying anti-choice activism, a spasm that seems impervious to Republican party attempts to get it under control.

As Dahlia Lithwick noted, Virginia legislators are being blunt about this. Del. David Englin reports that a Republican colleague basically told him that unwanted penetration by the ultrasound wasn’t a big deal, because the woman being penetrated has already been penetrated by a penis. This is the “non-virgins can’t be raped” argument, brought up to defend another attack on women’s basic right to bodily autonomy. Lithwick also wrote:

That’s the same logic that animates the bill’s sponsor in the House of Delegates, Del. Kathy J. Byron, who insisted this week that, “if we want to talk about invasiveness, there’s nothing more invasive than the procedure that she is about to have.” Decoded, that means that if you are willing to submit to sex and/or an abortion, the state should be allowed to penetrate your body as well.

This logic—that being penetrated by an ultrasound wand against your will and for no medical reason is what you have coming for the apparently criminal choice to have sex–was echoed by right wing defenders of the bill. Supposed “libertarian” Megan McArdle enthusiastically endorsed mandatory shaming as punishment for abortion. She said in the comments at her blog, “I think that abortion should be legal, but I also think that it should be a last resort, and I’m all for the government using any non-coercive methods it can to encourage women to carry their pregnancy to term, including things that will make them feel bad about aborting. I think, for example, that sonograms should be mandatory before termination, I’m in favor of waiting periods and parental notification laws, and I’m agnostic on spousal notification.” Of course, all these are in fact coercive measures, in that you have no choice but to undergo them, but none of them actually discourage the desire for abortion. This is only about, as McArdle said, making them feel bad. It’s punishment, Puritan-style. By her logic, pelting someone with eggs who says she wants an abortion falls well within the realm of acceptable “non-coercive” methods.

Punishment usually comes after the crime, of course, and what makes mandatory ultrasound weird is that it’s coming before “the crime” that isn’t. But really, if you think about it from the right wing perspective, it’s not really. If you believe the original crime was having sex, then in fact, the mandatory ultrasound makes perfect chronological sense. Which is why you’re seeing so many justifications note that the woman had sex and therefore had this coming. The sex is really the crime, not the desire to have an abortion, though that’s a compounding factor. Dana Loesch said that forcible penetration by the state can’t be rape, because, “Wait a minute, they had no problem having similar to a trans-vaginal procedure when they engaged in the act that resulted in their pregnancy.” Again, it’s the theory that a non-virgin can’t be raped, and that if you had sex with one person, anyone can shove whatever they want into your body at any point in time. But also, this is about punishment, and suggesting that the proper punishment for a woman who has sex of her own volition is to sentence her to sexual assault.

Not only that, but sexual assault at the hands of someone who actually doesn’t want to assault her, but wants to help: the doctor. The punishment for doctors who want to help women is to forcibly recruit them into assaulting their patients, a particularly sadistic bit of business.  This, even though right-wingers have been trying to block women’s access to contraception by claiming that covering it or dispensing it violates so many health care workers or employers right to conscience. Which brings up the question: Since mandatory ultrasounds are a violation of a doctor’s conscience, and are designed to be a violation of the doctor’s conscience, shouldn’t conscience clauses wipe them out?

Ed Brayton made that argument:

The same people pushing for these mandatory sonogram bills have also been pushing for years for “conscience clauses” to allow people to refuse to perform medical procedures or even dispense medication if it violates their religious beliefs, like allowing pharmacists to refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control. So what do you suppose they would say if a doctor refused to perform this government-mandated invasive sonogram as a matter of conscience?

As Brayton points out, these laws are about forcing doctors to violate the Hippocratic oath. Since they swore an oath, it seems that forcing them to violate their oath is for more of a problem than expecting pharmacists to fill prescriptions for women. Alas, Virginia’s conscience laws are written in such a way that health care providers are only allowed to invoke “conscience” to hurt women, not to help them. Strange coincidence, that.  

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  • johann7

    I think that abortion should be legal, but I also think that it should be a last resort, and I’m all for the government using any non-coercive methods it can to encourage women to carry their pregnancy to term, including things that will make them feel bad about aborting.

    Non-coercive? What in the hell is her definition of “coercion”? ALL LAWS are by definition coercive – that’s how they work. One would think a ‘Libertarian’ would get that. Laws work by ‘encouraging’ people to follow them using the threat of state imprisonment and/or violence – I’m not sure one could ask for a more clear-cut case of coercion than using threats to try to control someone’s behavior.

    This is truly one of the most despicable laws passed in my lifetime. If this goes forward, I wonder whether there’s a substantial federal case against the legislators who passed it for conspiracy to commit rape.

  • veggietart

    Aren’t the anti-choice agitators who are proponents of waiting periods and mandatory ultrasounds, etc., the same people who objected to health care reform on the grounds that it would “put a government bureaucrat between you and your doctor”?  What the hell is a mandatory ultrasound, mandatory waiting periods, requiring doctors to lie to patients, etc., if not putting a lot of government bureaucrats between women and their doctors. 


    Johann, I can’t wait to see doctors who perform abortions bring up the conscience clause–that forcing them to violate their patients and abide by these unnecessary waiting periods and procedures violates their consciences.


    And to Megan McArdle:  If you require a woman to have a transvaginal ultrasound before she ends an unwanted pregnancy, that’s pretty far from non-coercive. 

  • freetobe

    that the more restrictions to abortions there are in countries like Ireland and Poland the abortion rates have NOT gone down and in fact have increased or remained the same.

    It is a mental thing. People resent control and so do the opposite. So it makes no sense to keep restriciitng LEGAL abortion. Remember before Roe vs Wade women still had abortions. For the poor it was back alley and for the rich or middle class it was that old “DnC”. I remember so many women going in for DnC’s when I was younger. Now you never hear of them!

    So anti-women people, your making things worse for your cause( if thats what you can call it). Not only by restrictions but by the sheer anger women are feeling now. “Hell hath no fury as a woman scorned” try that with MILLIONS of scorned women. If “mamma ain’t happy ain’t nobody happy” yeah and we ALL will be voting this fall !!!

  • carolrhill814

    Maybe they should give the men an ultrasound to see if he really needs hair transplant but of course not that is not required because he knows he wants one to add hair to the top of his head.

    That is so right an ultrasound that women get is find out if she is with child and if she is and doesn’t want it she will make the decision to have an abortion then and only then and by seeing her baby more than likely she will have the abortion anyway because she never wanted the baby in the first place or maybe she did want it either way she will make that decision.

    All of this makes me want to vomate because to me this personal and nobody’s business what she wants to do or not to.