Family Matters

Requiring Ultrasounds Before Abortion: One Mother’s Personal Tragedy

Carolyn Jones made the wrenching decision to end her pregnancy after learning that her unborn son had severe disabilities. Before she could get an abortion, the law required her to view her baby on ultrasound and hear detailed descriptions of his anatomy, an experience she calls “barbaric.”

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Jed Obray Photography / Flickr / Getty Images

Carolyn Jones was pregnant with her second child, a much-wanted brother for her 2-year-old daughter, when what should have been an ordinary ultrasound turned into anything but.

She was 20 weeks pregnant on the day in January when her doctor, the same one who delivered her daughter, gently broke the news that her new baby may not make it to term because of the severity of his disabilities; should he be born alive, his particular birth defect would mean he’d spend his entire life going back and forth from the hospital. A specialist conducted a second ultrasound and confirmed the prognosis. Stunned, Jones had a horrible decision to make: welcome a child into this world to face a lifetime of suffering or abort him. Choosing to continue the pregnancy, says Jones, a freelance writer in Austin, Texas, “sounded like physical cruelty.” She made her choice. That same day, she went to a Planned Parenthood clinic for the abortion.

If learning that her son was sick was the single worst moment in Jones’ life, what followed just magnified the horror. Texas is one of seven states — along with Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana and Mississippi — that requires ultrasound prior to abortion. In July, Virginia will become the eighth. Much has been written about the increasingly draconian hoops through which women seeking abortions must jump. But it is doubtful that the legislators debating vaginal probes or abdominal wands considered the effect it would have on a woman who really, really wanted to be a mom, but chose otherwise out of love, to require her to submit to an ultrasound before being allowed to end her pregnancy.

(MORE: Why a Mother Would Have Aborted Her Son)

Jones chronicled her ordeal for the Texas Observer last week in an understated but heartbreaking essay that has racked up more than 27,000 Facebook “likes”:

It felt like a physical blow to hear that word, abortion, in the context of our much-wanted child. Abortion is a topic that never seemed relevant to me; it was something we read about in the news or talked about politically; it always remained at a safe distance. Yet now its ugly fist was hammering on my chest.

When she arrived at Planned Parenthood, the doctor who was to perform the abortion first performed an ultrasound, as ordered by law — despite the fact that it was Jones’ third ultrasound of the day. He also had to describe in detail her baby’s anatomy. “It felt barbaric to have to listen to a description of a baby I had so badly wanted,” says Jones, who is 35. “I could barely breathe.”

Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath, pledging to do no harm. Yet it’s tough to argue that forcing Jones to look at and listen to the description of a baby she would never rock or cuddle didn’t cause her psychological harm. The doctor must have known this; he apologized to Jones and tried to minimize her distress. “I am so sorry,” she says he told her, “but if I don’t do this, I could lose my license.” He did his best to make the ordeal easier. He spoke softly. The nurse turned up the radio. But still Jones heard him:

“Here I see a well-developed diaphragm and here I see four healthy chambers of the heart…”

I closed my eyes and waited for it to end, as one waits for the car to stop rolling at the end of a terrible accident.

Then Jones had to leave and return a day later — a mandatory 24-hour waiting period during which women who’ve decided for any reason that they can’t be mothers right now are supposed to reflect and, ideally, change their mind.

Jones didn’t change her mind. “You can imagine that having politicians muscling in on the most private and devastating personal situation I’ve ever been was terrible,” says Jones. “As devastating as this is, I feel at peace with the choice I made.”

Ironically, Jones later learned that at least one aspect of her experience could have been avoided. Texas allows minors with parental consent, victims of rape or incest and women carrying a baby with an irreversible abnormality to opt out of hearing their baby described in detail; the law was so new that Planned Parenthood hadn’t realized Jones could be exempt. But the exemptions highlight the arbitrary ways in which various states are implementing their laws.

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Texas has the most restrictive law, requiring women to listen to the gallop of their baby’s heartbeat, before aborting it. Alabama — which simply offers the woman the option of viewing the ultrasound image — has the least. Some states show a measure of compassion by letting some women opt out of some of the requirements. North Carolina, whose law is not in effect due to legal challenges, requires providers to show and describe the ultrasound image, with no exceptions. A woman must certify that the law was enforced and indicate whether she looked at the pictures. It’s a hodgepodge of medical interventions being legislated by (mostly) male politicians.

Elizabeth Nash, who tracks states’ reproductive health policies for the Guttmacher Institute, believes the laws are in place not to provide women with more information but to steer them away from abortion. In the late 1990s, when the trend toward making it tougher to get an abortion picked up speed, women were simply required to be made aware of the availability of ultrasounds as part of their pre-abortion counseling. The next wave saw providers being mandated to offer ultrasounds, which led next to their requirement. Most recently, states have debated and legislated the fetal descriptions that Jones endured. “It moved very quickly from something that could be about informed consent to something that is very clearly about shaming and humiliating women,” says Nash.

Jones refused to be humiliated. She reclaimed her dignity by telling her story, a story of what she calls a “superfluous layer of torment piled upon an already horrific day.” In the week since it was published, she’s gotten emails from all over the U.S. Every single message has been supportive. Says Jones: “People feel passionately about women’s rights.”

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9 comments
JeanetteGouws
JeanetteGouws

This has to be one of the most manipulative and selfish articles I have read. Up to 85% of women who look at an ultrasound of their babies before abortion decide against killing their unborn child. Not because they feel guilty but because the reality of the humanity of this little person hits home. With all the misinformation and the crazy" womens rights at the cost of others " activists they have been led to believe that it is not cold blooded murder but simply the exercising of THEIR rights. The reality is that most mothers suffer a lifetime of guilt, depression and shame for what they have done.

kristab16
kristab16

If they're going to enforce this horrendous practice, it's only fair that the fathers should be required to look/listen as well.

maeko25
maeko25

Really, allowing the child to live sounds like physical cruelty? And an abortion doesn't? 

Dilation and Extraction (D&X) (partial-birth abortion): from 20 weeks after LMP to full-term: This procedure takes three days. During the first two days, the cervix is stretched open using thin rods made of seaweed, and medication is given to the mother for pain. On the third day, the abortion doctor uses ultrasound to locate the legs of the fetus. Grasping a leg with forceps, the doctor delivers the fetus up to the head. Next, scissors are inserted into the base of the skull to create an opening. A suction catheter is placed into the opening to remove the brain. The skull collapses and the fetus is removed. 
This fetus has brainwaves, working senses of touch and sound. It can feel pain, it can hear the sound of the coming suction. It has a heartbeat, and its skin can sense the air around it and the cold metal of the forceps as it is partially delivered and then killed. Yes, it may have had a hard life in and out of hospitals - or it may have been treated and gone home healthy! One thing is for sure: allowing the child to live was not physical cruelty; the abortion was.

McQueenSarah
McQueenSarah

Jones, there is something so gentle and so quiet and so submissive about her voice.  But something sooo gently, quietly manipulative.  this woman scare the sh** out of me.  Death is part of life.  If you a grown woman and a mature full woman you have to be equipped to deal with Death.  Mourning is healthy, Tears is a gift, grief is healthy.  It part of healing.  But ungoverned mouring and howling at the moon something is not right and not full shilling.  Planned Parenthood sell abortion, sell murder, push abortion, go to youtube, see for yourself the most ugly awful documentaries of Planned Parenthood grubbing for money for selling abortions.  Jones pushes that no post tramatic from murdering your own child.  She is so gently manipulative, her corruption is  beyond my comprehension with her beautiful gentle voice.  creepiest interview I ever listened to.    

McQueenSarah
McQueenSarah

I wonder what the diag. was? why are we not told that we are told the most tender and emotional. 

KyleBecker1
KyleBecker1

@kristab16So what? If the father is known, make him know the consequences of his decision, too. An abortion isn't a trivial decision. It has consequences, and shouldn't people be fully informed? The left seems to be arguing for more ignorance, rather than more information. Regardless of one's stance on abortion, radicals seem to be championing a dehumanizing view of their fellow human beings. That is what a lot of people find "barbaric," and the argument does not hinge on religious faith. It's a matter of reason and compassion. Out of sight, out of mind is not an attitude to promote in society.

gastlysmom
gastlysmom

@maeko25 not exactly sure where you got this information. I was forced to abort a child die to extreme medical circumstances. I had a D and C ( 34 years ago ) It took less than an hour. As heart wrenching as this is, it beats the hell out of YOUR taxes supporting a human who has no chance of any quality of life whatsoever One who will be unable to speak, eat, even use a toilet. I am sure I made the correct decision and if you knew my circumstances. I'm quite certain that you would agree.