Censoring Doonesbury on Abortion: It’s So Sad It’s Not Even Funny


What does it say about the state of our society when so many state legislators seem to make the passage of laws de-humanizing women their main priority, but newspapers are afraid of running comic strips satirizing these laws?

Garry Trudeau, the brilliant political cartoonist, has produced a series on forced trans-vaginal sonogram laws in Texas, intended to run in all papers that syndicate his comic strip. The strip depicts a “shaming room” and counseling by ridiculous anti-choice legislators in an effort to drive home how harmful these laws are.

Except not all papers who regularly run Trudeau will run this week’s strip.

Doonesbury’s syndicate, United Features, has given papers that don’t want to run the strips a set of alternate cartoons. “Even though the real cartoons simply humanize the struggles of Texas women, many papers will call that “controversial,”” notes the Center for Reproductive Rights.  

The list of papers taking smelling salts notably includes–in fact is weighted toward–outlets in states with the harshest anti-choice, anti-woman laws on the books or now being pushed by state legislatures. The Gainsville Sun and the Ocala Star-Banner in central Florida have refused to run the strip, for example, while the Florida legislature has passed restrictions on access to abortion for low-income women, young women, and just women women; mandates biased and medically inaccurate counseling for women seeking abortion; and has in place unnecessary TRAP laws (targeted regulation of providers) that have nothing to do with health and safety and everything to do with reducing access to safe abortion.

In Indiana, The Indianapolis Star has refused to run the strip as has the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. Writing at Colorlines about HB 1210, an anti-choice law passed in Indiana in 2011, Akiba Solomon states

Among other heinousness, the law codifies what radical anti-choicers call ‘fetal pain,’ and requires a woman who has already decided to have an abortion to gaze at ultrasound images and listen for the flutter of a fetal heartbeat right before the emotionally charged procedure.

HB 1210 also strips existing and future Medicaid payments from “any entity that performs abortions or maintains or operates a facility where abortions are performed.” (Hospitals are exempt.) For those who don’t speak Radical Republicanese, “entity” means “Planned Parenthood,” which runs 28 health centers across the state.

Legislators in Pennsylvania, a state with high unemployment, high rates of poverty and many other problems, spent an astonishing 30 percent of their time last year on anti-choice laws, and yet have been kinda quiet lately on their own version of a state-sanctioned rape/mandatory trans-vaginal ultrasound law ever since Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell got in trouble for that one, though he passed an abusive mandatory ultrasound law anyway.

The Kansas City Star has decided that the topic is too hot for its comics page, but will run the series on its op-ed pages. Meanwhile, the state legislature is considering a 68-page bill of abortion restrictions that RH Reality Check’s Kari Ann Rinker calls one of the most anti-choice laws in the nation.

Creating a divide between what laws are being passed and what we are willing to portray in satire is dangerous. Some editors have said the comic “goes over the line.” But if the comic goes over the line, what does that say about the law? And if we are willing to abuse the rights of individual people but not actually look at the reality of the state-sanctioned laws that do so, even in the form of satire, what does that say about the state of this democracy?

What it says to me is that in our society, it is apparently okay for the state to force a woman to undergo an unnecessary medical procedure–to humiliate her and to charge her for the costs of that humiliation–in order for her to subjugate herself enough to get what for her is a necessary–and legal–medical procedure, but not okay in the sensibilities of many newspaper editors to make such abuse visible to the public at large. 

What it confirms for me is what I have believed for a long time… that the less “visible” are the human rights, economic, or social abuses we heap on people in this country–whether these take the form of mandatory ultrasounds to the shackling of pregnant or laboring women in prison to abstinence-only programs that de-humanize LGBT youth to the effects on low-income people of cuts in public transport, unemployment insurance and other social survival programs–the more we are willing to tolerate and in fact expand those abuses.

Because we don’t see them.

Some papers are stepping up. The Washington Post is running the cartoons, and the Cleveland Plain Dealer, is running the strip, because: “Garry Trudeau’s metier is political satire; if we choose to carry ‘Doonesbury,’ we can’t yank the strip every time it deals with a highly charged issue.” 

Especially not when the rights and well-being of women throughout this country are daily affected by this “highly charged” issue human rights abuse and will continue to be so until we make them visible.

A correction was made to the above article at 2:00 pm on Monday, March 12th to correct the percentage of time spent by the Pennsylvania legislature on anti-choice legislation.

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  • ewestley

    Add the Columbus Dispatch to your list! And thanks for your good work, as always.