The Virginia Ultrasound Bill and the Moniker of Rape
Last year a friend of mine had concerns about her teenage daughter’s health. Without going into detail, know that certain troubling symptoms had led her to believe that her daughter’s reproductive health might be in jeopardy. She scheduled an appointment at the family gynecologist, but her daughter – thinking her mom was overreacting – refused to go. It led to a few nights of intense in-house battle royales, until the mother played the “until you are 18 and as long as you live under my roof” card, and through the threat of taking away a number of privileges (including the ability to see her boyfriend again) basically coerced her daughter into a fairly thorough vaginal exam that was not merely superficial.
It may well be that this was excellent parenting, or that it was horrible parenting, or that it was something in between. Being a man who has only sons, I admit I do not feel comfortable or even qualified wading into judgement about how these two females handled a decision about one’s reproductive health. Instead, I want to merely acknowledge that the daughter was coerced into a vaginally invasive (and, I’m sure for her, humiliating) medical procedure by her mother – a procedure that was not wanted by the daughter, whose body was the one that underwent said invasive treatment.
And, having said that, I want to ask an intentionally provocative question: Was this rape?
Last week the state of Virginia passed a bill that will require a woman to undergo an ultrasound before getting an abortion, regardless of what stage or state her pregnancy has reached. The bill’s sponsors are saying the politically correct things, such as how this is as much for the mother’s protection as anything else; however, it seems obvious that the bill is designed to create enough guilt in a woman after seeing the ultrasound that she opts to give birth instead.
The language of the bill has language that creates what I would call substantial ethical, moral and overreach issues:
Except in the case of a medical emergency, at least 2 hours before the performance of an abortion a qualified medical professional trained in sonography and working under the direct supervision of a physician licensed in the Commonwealth shall perform fetal ultrasound imaging and auscultation of fetal heart tone services on the patient undergoing the abortion for the purpose of determining gestational age. The ultrasound image shall be made pursuant to standard medical practice in the community, contain the dimensions of the fetus, and accurately portray the presence of external members and internal organs of the fetus, if present or viewable. Determination of gestational age shall be based upon measurement of the fetus in a manner consistent with standard medical practice in the community in determining gestational age. When only the gestational sac is visible during ultrasound imaging, gestational age may be based upon measurement of the gestational sac. A print of the ultrasound image shall be made to document the measurements that have been taken to determine the gestational age of the fetus.
One of the problems that this language brings up (and one that I have not seen addressed) is that it may require a woman to have to wait to make a healthcare choice until a very small number of cells grows into a fetus that is developed enough to meet the State ultrasound requirements. (If I am way off base on this – I am neither a doctor not a pregnancy expert – I invite folks like Russell to explain to all that I am wrong.) The terrible part of the bill that has captured the public’s attention, however, has to do with the fact that in order to fulfill the requirements of the bill in the first twelve weeks, doctors are required to use a type of ultrasound device that is inserted into the vagina – which is about as invasive a procedure as you can get without actually cutting into the body. And a woman must undergo this procedure even if it her doctor believes it is not medically necessary.
As a way to combat this bill, opponents are calling the ultrasound procedure rape. In fact, at just about every liberal blog you will see this bill referred to as the “State Sponsored Rape Bill.” The use of the word “rape” in connection to this bill was both so instantaneous and universal on the left that it reminded me of nothing less than what FOX so often does with framing language on the right.
The reason for using the word rape, as I understand it, is this: it requires, for anyone seeking an abortion in their first twelve weeks or pregnancy, to undergo an invasive exam, where an instrument is inserted into the patient’s vagina. That the instrument in question is quite phallic probably contributes.
I must say I find this bill somewhat sickening, and it’s hard for me to believe that – in addition to the (perhaps) more lofty goal of protecting an unborn child – it isn’t designed with a mindset of punishing a woman for experiencing her own sexuality. What’s more, even though I try to be a “benefit of the doubt” kind of guy, I have a hard time believing that the backers of this bill would ever be willing to back a bill that looked to punish the male in this scenario for experiencing his sexuality. I personally find the bill to be unethical, invasive, overreaching, scary, and – intentional or not – misogynist.
But I am not sure that it qualifies a rape, just as I do not feel my friend contributed in the raping of her daughter. What’s more, I fear that expanding the colloquial definition of rape this far risks potential positive social and policy advancements with how we approach and treat what we have historically referred to as rape. And believe me, we really need to some positive change in this area.
Most conservative estimates concerning rape in the United States say that somewhere between 15-20% of all adult females are the victim of rape. This statistic alone is horrific, but it is all the more so when you consider the all the variables that make it hard to get an exact number. For example, it is estimated that 60% of rapes are never reported at all; what’s more we do not keep statistics for those that initially report rape to the authorities but for various reasons choose not to press for prosecution. The truth of the matter is that the real numbers are somewhat unknown, and part of the reason for this is because when it comes to rape we as a society we handle it terribly.
As awful as it is to admit this, in our country if a woman is sexually assaulted, her very first responsibility – both to our courts and public opinion – is to prove that she was not the one at fault by virtue of being promiscuous and/or doing, wearing, or saying something that suggested she was “asking for it.” That a victim has to go through this procedure in order to get any justice (or protect potential future victims) suggest that as a society we’re not really as comfortable with a woman being in control of her own body and sexuality to the degree we pat ourselves on the head for being.
Last week, when it was suggested that the ultrasounds demanded by the Virginia bill might constitute rape, CNN contributor/Big Journalism editor-in-chief/tea party radio host Dana Loesch chose not to dispute the correctness of the term rape, but instead fired back that “[those women] had no problem having similar to a trans-vaginal procedure when they engaged in the act that resulted in their pregnancy.” FOX contributor Liz Trotta, when asked about the number of violent sexual assaults in the military, claimed that it was basically the fault of the victims for committing the simultaneous crimes of being women and being in the same room with the boys.
Clearly, we need to figure out a way to combat rape better than we do now. Expanding the definition of rape for political expediency, however, will have the opposite effect. The broader a definition the public has of rape, the more watered down that definition becomes, and the more it loses the horror that should be attached to it.
If you call an ultra sound rape in Virginia, you might find that you have to call forced STD exam by a mother a rape as well, and pretty soon when you try to start a needed public dialogue about rape prevention people will tune out. Because fair or not, tuning out is what happens over time when we use shocking words to ease political gain – even when it’s for all the right reasons.
Fascism is an awful thing that we should be on guard against, but we aren’t – and probably never will be again until it bites us in the ass. We’ve had so many years of liberals (initially) and conservatives (more recently) simply tagging anything they didn’t like as “fascism” that it has lost any real meaning in our popular culture. Seriously, if you read a headline warning of a fascist threat tomorrow, wouldn’t you just roll your eyes and skip to the next story? Slavery, too, is currently being used as an “I don’t want to take the time to think of a coherent argument” bookmark for any policy one is against, and so it too is losing potency. (True story: A conservative friend of mine’s young son asked recently why black people today were so upset about their ancestors having been made to do things like eat Chicken McNuggets, which are so delicious. I’ll let you do the backwards math to figure out how he got there.)
The Virginia ultrasound bill is many, many things, and in my mind all of them are horrible. But I’m not sure that it’s rape. And I think we need to resist the politically easy temptation of calling it such. We might get the vote out today, but I’m not sure what good it will do as we won’t convince those independents that might back the bill that they are wrong, since they won’t see an ultrasound as rape. Worse, we run the risk of making harder over time to move public policy and opinion in the correct direction when it comes to actual sexual assault.