Ongoing study: Mandatory ultrasounds have very little impact on abortion decisions

Mandatory ultrasound viewing is quickly becoming the new favorite tactic of the state-level war on choice. Six states currently require all women seeking abortions to view ultrasound images, and until women’s health advocates weighed in with a tidal wave of opposition, our very own state of Pennsylvania was poised to be the seventh.

The rationale behind mandatory ultrasound laws is that when a pregnant woman sees the ultrasound image of her fetus, she will feel a maternal attachment and be less inclined to terminate her pregnancy.

We’ve been hearing this argument for years.  According to the Family Research Council (an ultra-conservative group that actively opposes abortion, divorce, LGBT rights, and embryonic stem-cell research to name a few), “eight in ten pregnancy resource centers report that ‘abortion-minded’ women decide to keep their babies after seeing ultrasound images,” and “[a]ccording to an executive director of an Iowa pregnancy resource center, 90 percent of women who see their baby by ultrasound choose life.” Americans United for Life insists that “medical evidence indicates that women feel bonded to their children after seeing them on the ultrasound screen” – as evidence, they refer to a 1983 study that reported exactly two cases of women, around three months pregnant, feeling bonded with their fetuses after viewing ultrasounds.

Now, almost thirty years later, assistant medical professor Tracy Weitz is conducting a more comprehensive study – interviewing twenty abortion-seeking women in two states and surveying ultrasound clinicians about their practices – to determine whether ultrasound advocates’ claims are accurate. And while research is far from over, preliminary results suggest that women consistently choosing to carry their pregnancies to term after viewing the ultrasound image is less documented phenomenon, and more pro-life fantasy.

The majority of clinicians interviewed felt that ultrasound viewing typically had little or no impact on a woman’s decision. Some reported that the information gathered through the ultrasound was useful to women making their decisions – information such as gestational age – but the ultrasound itself was rarely a game-changer.  Said one:

 I’ve never had a patient change their mind simply by seeing the ultrasound… just seeing the ultrasound hasn’t made anyone say, “Okay well, I don’t want to do this.”

Weitz recommends giving all women seeking abortions the option of viewing an ultrasound image of the fetus, but discourages mandatory viewing laws and warns against expecting the images to change women’s minds. After all, as her study points out, 60% of abortion patients already have at least one child – and therefore, almost definitely have seen ultrasound images before – and most women who terminate their pregnancies do so because of the “material conditions of their lives.”

According to the same study,

The research has surfaced a few case studies in which women went to crisis pregnancy centers and were allegedly given false information about their gestational status. In some instances, women underwent ultrasounds and were told they were further along than they actually were, and were thus ineligible for abortions.

Mandatory ultrasound laws often have the effect of driving women to centers like this, which are some of the easiest places for women to get ultrasounds, but are agenda-driven and often not staffed with trained medical personnel.

This study seems poised to substantially debunk the maternal attachment myth behind ultrasound laws. When the results become widespread public knowledge, perhaps we can start to focus on the real reasons behind these laws. In the states where they are enforced, mandatory ultrasound viewing laws are a delay tactic aimed at preventing abortions by forcing women who want them to jump through time-consuming, expensive hoops so that by the time they have completed all of the legal requirements, they are too far along in their pregnancies to abort.

Weitz’s research confirms what pro-choice advocates have been saying all along: mandatory ultrasound laws are not based in scientific fact. They are not passed with women’s best interests at heart.  And a bill has been introduced in Pennsylvania.  Learn more about the threat by visiting the Legislative Action page on WLP’s web site and by following Pennsylvanians for Choice and We’ve Had Enough PA .  Take action here with petitions, signs, and other tools to make your voice heard. And Pennsylvania residents, remember to contact your representative in the house to express your opposition to HB 1077, Pennsylvania’s ultrasound bill.

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The Women's Law Project creates a more just and equitable society by advancing the rights and status of all women throughout their lives. To this end, we engage in high-impact litigation, advocacy, and education.
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3 Responses to Ongoing study: Mandatory ultrasounds have very little impact on abortion decisions

  1. Pingback: My Past Work: On Reproductive Justice « Going Mental

  2. Sophia says:

    “Mandatory ultrasound laws often have the effect of driving women to centers like this, which are some of the easiest places for women to get ultrasounds, but are agenda-driven and often not staffed with trained medical personnel.”

    I’m writing an article about these ultrasound laws for my school paper, and I was wondering if you could explain how a mandatory ultrasound law would make a woman more likely to go to a crisis pregnancy center? Thanks!

  3. Patty Quinn says:

    If the proponents of this bill really supported it out of a wish to “inform” women, it wouldn’t be coercive and forced, as it is. I don’t like having my intelligence insulted. This is institutionalized bullying in the most humiliating, invasive form.

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