Window to The Womb

By William Saletan
Sunday, April 29, 2007

Last week, antiabortion activists won their biggest victory in 40 years: a Supreme Court decision upholding the Partial Birth Abortion Ban Act. This week, they announced their next target. They want bills that, in the words of Douglas Johnson of the National Right to Life Committee, "require the abortionist to offer the woman an opportunity to view an ultrasound" of her fetus.

For the activists, this segue is logical. For the court, it means trouble. It threatens to unravel the latest judicial compromise and, with it, Roe v. Wade. In its April 18 ruling, the court treated abortion like an obscenity -- something that could be done but not out in the open. "Partial-birth" abortions, the court reasoned, could be banned because they occur outside the woman's body. Other abortions need not be outlawed, because the womb conceals them.

But ultrasound dissolves this distinction. It makes every fetus and every abortion visible. It could force the court to renounce either the partial-birth ban or the right to abortion.

For 34 years, the court allowed states to regulate, but not ban, abortions where the fetus wasn't viable outside the womb. That era ended on April 18. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the court, ruled that the partial-birth ban was compatible with Roe because abortions other than the partial-birth kind would remain legal.

Kennedy noted that the selective ban was rational because partial-birth abortion, unlike internal dismemberment, "occurs when the fetus is partially outside the mother" and therefore has a "disturbing similarity to the killing of a newborn infant." In other words, it's rational and constitutional to ban abortions based on how they look, not what they are. Killing the fetus inside the womb is okay, because the public won't see it.

That's one reason why abortion opponents are turning their attention from partial-birth abortion to ultrasound, from the fetus outside the body to the fetus within it. They're trying to open, in their words, a "window to the womb."

Abortion opponents are often caricatured as stupid creationists who just want to put women back in their place. Science and free inquiry are supposed to help them get over their "love affair with the fetus." But science hasn't cooperated. Ultrasound has exposed the life in the womb to those of us who didn't want to see what abortion kills. The fetus is squirming, and so are we.

Around the country, ultrasound bills are all the rage. Most of them require clinics to offer each woman an ultrasound view of her fetus. Mississippi enacted a law on March 22. Idaho followed on April 3. Georgia's legislature passed a bill a week ago; South Carolina's is about to do the same.

Critics complain that these bills seek to "bias," "coerce" and "guilt-trip" women. Come on. Women aren't too weak to face the truth. If you don't want to look at the video, you don't have to. But you should look at it, and so should the guy who got you pregnant, because the decision you're about to make is as grave as it gets.

Are ultrasound pushers trying to bias your decision? Of course. But of all the things they do to "inform" your decision, ultrasound is the least onerous.

Look at the Senate's Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, which would order your doctor to deliver a 193-word script full of debatable congressional findings about your "pain-capable unborn child." Ultrasound cuts through that kind of garbage. The image on the monitor may look like a blob, a baby or neither. It certainly won't follow some senator's script. All it will show you is the truth.

I'd propose four amendments to any ultrasound bill. First, the government should pick up the tab. Second, the woman should also be offered a six-hour videotape of a screaming 1-year-old. Third, any juror in a death-penalty case should be offered the chance to view an execution. Fourth, anyone buying meat should be offered a video from a slaughterhouse. If my first amendment passed but the others failed, I'd still vote for the bill.

To abortion opponents, ultrasound is a test of pro-choice sincerity. Mary Spaulding Balch, the state legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee, says people who resist ultrasound bills are "petrified that women will change their minds after seeing their babies."

Maybe. But abortion opponents seem equally petrified that women won't change their minds. They rigged Mississippi's ultrasound law with a clause that would ban nearly all abortions if Roe is overturned.

Now the Supreme Court has echoed that equivocation, ruling that one way to "inform" women of the evil of partial-birth abortion is to criminalize it. But the clash between ultrasound and the partial-birth ban is ultimately a choice between information and prohibition. To trust the ultrasound, you have to trust the woman.

William Saletan covers science and technology for Slate, the online magazine at

© 2007 The Washington Post Company