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.
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.
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.”