Right now, in the state of Texas, it’s super easy to get a legal abortion. Once you’ve scraped together the funds out of pocket, since abortions aren’t covered by many insurance plans and they’re definitely not covered by Medicaid, found a clinic that has survived the recent rash of shutterings ushered in by a new law (the one that made State Senator Wendy Davis a filibustering feminist icon and a Governor’s mansion contender) gotten the day off work, secured childcare for any children you might already have, and made your way across a large stretch of the large state, you’re all set! Easy as pecan and fetus pie.
But once you’ve cleared all those hurdles, once you’re in the exam room ready to be made un-pregnant so that you can finish your education or take care of your kids or just, you know, not be a parent right now because you just don’t want to, there’s yet another hurdle awaiting you. It’s called the transvaginal ultrasound.
Transvaginal ultrasounds have been the law in Texas since late 2011, but the phrase, which rolls so trippingly off the tongue, didn’t really enter my vocabulary until other states — Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio — started trying to make the procedure mandatory for anyone seeking an abortion, in early 2012. Last year, 11 states introduced laws stating that any abortion must be preceded by an ultrasound, even if the doctor doesn’t deem that imaging medically necessary. Currently, almost a dozen states — Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, Virginia, and Wisconsin — have ultrasound laws, and because many of those laws stipulate that the image must be of a certain level of clarity, the ultrasound cannot be abdominal. The only way to get the level of detail demanded by those laws is to do an internal examination.
Like a lot of pro-choice people, I was horrified by this new trend. I wrote about it, I opined about it on TV, I raged about it to my friends over wine (I’m super fun to get a drink with, you guys). Each time, I’d say the phrase “transvaginal ultrasound,” and I’d often preface it with the word “invasive.” Invasive transvaginal ultrasound. Invasive medically unnecessary transvaginal ultrasound.
I didn’t know the half of it.
Last week, I was hospitalized for severe lower abdominal pain. “Severe” probably doesn’t capture it. I’ve dislocated my knee by landing a somersault on a straight leg. I’ve ruptured a disc in my back and felt all the shock-absorbing goo leak out. I’ve read all the Twilight books, including the leaked unpublished re-write of the first book as told from Edward Cullen’s perspective. But I’d never felt a pain like this. It knocked the breath out of me, which is why I soon found myself on an ambulance stretcher, wearing an oxygen mask and being taken to the nearest emergency room.
I was fairly sure an alien was about to burst out of my torso, and I was alone in the ambulance, with no Ripley by my side.
Once I got to the ER, doctors quickly ruled out the most obvious causes of the pain: inflamed or ruptured appendix, ectopic pregnancy, vampire baby. So they decided that the next step was to take a look inside me to see what the hell was going on. After almost two years of writing about the transvaginal ultrasound as an abstract, albeit awful, thing, it was my turn.
If you’ve never seen a vaginal ultrasound wand, it’s about ten inches long, and looks like an expensive but decidedly unsexy personal massager. The obstetrician covered it in a rubber glove, put on some lubricant, and then it was inside me. It was my third internal exam of the evening — like having three annuals in one day — and it was painful enough to make fresh tears stream down my face and into my incredibly flattering hospital gown.
My first thought when it was over was, “I can’t believe we do this to rape victims when it’s not even medically necessary.” But we do. I can’t believe we do it to anyone when it’s not medically necessary, but that we would inflict it on people who have already been sexually violated, who have already been penetrated against their will, strikes me as particularly cruel. But we do. If you’re in a state with an ultrasound law, there’s no box you can check at the doctor’s office that will exempt you from a medically pointless procedure that could trigger all sorts of memories of sexual trauma.
Of course, the cruelty isn’t coincidental. The point of medically unnecessary ultrasounds is to throw yet another obstacle in the path of people who are seeking abortions, to make the process as painful and humiliating as can be — to make abortion as hard as possible to obtain, in every possible way. To make you suffer for having an abortion. As I laid there being given a real-time guided tour of my own ovaries, I felt thankful that I wasn’t being forced to listen to a description of a tiny fetus I wanted to abort, or required to view an image of it.
My ultrasound was medically necessary, and I’m lucky that I had access to the medical experts and equipment I needed to figure out what the hell was wrong with me. It sickens me to think of that expertise and technology being used to punish people for exercising their constitutionally protected rights. My ultrasound was invasive in that it caused me pain and left me feeling as though a physical boundary had been breached, if not against my will then against my want. It wasn’t invasive in the sense that mandatory, medically unnecessary pre-abortion ultrasounds are: its primary purpose was not to make me feel that way. It wasn’t cruel.
But it was a brief glimpse into the cruelty that is legally inflicted onto many thousands of Americans every year, from Alabama to Arizona. Here in the blue states, where abortion rights are relatively well-protected, we shake our heads and the rising tide of anti-abortion restrictions elsewhere in America, at the absurd regulations to which clinics must now adhere, at the hoops one now must jump to obtain an abortion, at the trend of “flea market abortions” for people who cannot get safe and legal ones, at people crossing the border into Mexico to buy unregulated abortion-inducing drugs.
We shake our heads, we opine, we think we understand. But we don’t know the half of it.