“Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The strip, which will run all week in newspapers around the world, is a response to the law passed by a Republican-majority Texas legislature last spring that requires a woman who wants an abortion to first have a vaginal sonogram so that she can hear the heartbeat of her fetus.

Similar, albeit less extreme, bills have been passed in Virginia, as well as in Oklahoma and North Carolina, where they are on hold pending legal battles, and are being contemplated in Alabama, Kentucky, Rhode Island and Mississippi.

In the comic strip, a woman turns up at an abortion clinic in Texas and is told to take a seat in “the shaming room.” A state legislator then asks if she’s been at the clinic before and, when she says she’d been there to get contraceptives, he replies: “Do your parents know you’re a slut?”

Later, she says she does not want an intrusive vaginal examination but is told by a nurse: “Sorry miss, you’re first trimester. The male Republicans who run Texas require that all abortion seekers be examined with a 10” shaming wand.” A doctor, about to perform the procedure then says: “By the authority invested in me by the GOP base, I thee rape.”

So far, the reaction to the comic has been mixed. Several newspapers in the United States have pulled it, including the Oregonian in Portland and the Gainesville Sun. An editor of the Oregonian said in a note to readers that Trudeau “went over the line of good taste and humor in penning a series on abortion using graphic language and images inappropriate for a comics page.”

Other newspapers, notably the Los Angeles Times and the Kansas City Star, will run the strip on their editorial page, on the grounds that it addresses “a controversial subject.” Still others, like the Cleveland Plain Dealer, will run the comic as they always do – on their comics page – as a piece of political satire.

Trudeau himself seems to have no qualms about diving into the culture wars with two feet. To the contrary, he felt it was his obligation, even though it is only the second time in his 40-year career that he has tackled abortion head-on.

“For some reason, the GOP has chosen 2012 to relitigate reproductive freedom, an issue that was resolved decades ago,” he told The Washington Post. “Why [Rick] Santorum, [Rush] Limbaugh et al. thought this would be a good time to declare war on half the electorate, I cannot say. But to ignore it would have been comedy malpractice.”

As for his use of the word “rape” to describe what was happening to women seeking abortions in Texas, Trudeau explained to the Guardian that it was perfectly apt for the compulsory insertion of an object into the vulva. “That falls within the legal definition of rape. Coercion need not be physically violent to meet the threshold. Many people here are now referring to transvaginal sonograms as ‘state rape.’ That seems about right to me.”

My own concerns have less to do with the content of the comic strip than the fallout it may inspire. With the “war on women” escalating in all directions, it’s getting increasingly unclear where all of this mutual recrimination is going to end.

Here in London, where I live, for example, a member of the hacking collective Anonymous broke into the Web site of Britain’s biggest abortion provider this month and planned to publicly release the details of women who’d used the service. It isn’t at all hard to imagine a similar break-in occurring in America, brought on by the ire that Trudeau’s comic strip is likely to engender among hard-core abortion opponents.

On the other side of the fence, my in-box and Facebook feed are currently flooded with images and slogans along the lines of “This slut votes,” in response to Rush Limbaugh’s recent tirade against contraception.

So far, I’ve been fine with those messages and find them at once amusing and appropriate. But will the campaigning get all the more vitriolic and graphic as this whole thing spirals out of control?

And, of course, those of us in Europe remember all too well the fate of the Danish cartoonist who dared to portray the prophet Muhammad in one of his comic strips. He and the newspapers that published that strip were subjected to repeated acts violence, including assorted break-ins and even death threats.

None of which is to say that we ought to sacrifice free speech in the name of politesse. But we are living in dangerous times where the old adage “there’s no such thing as a joke” seems to be truer every day.

Delia Lloyd, a former correspondent for Politics Daily, is an American journalist based in London. She blogs about adulthood at www.realdelia.com , and you can follow her on Twitter @realdelia .

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