Not Again

New Wisconsin law does not compute

I always figured that when it came to the talked-to-death politics of reproductive choice, the arguments from all sides already had been made. We’ve been “rhetorically bludgeoned,” as a favorite writer once put it. 

Silly me. Thanks to the weirdness of the political world, once-dormant topics like birth control have inched their way up through the dirt like weeds choking grass. Skeptically reading the headlines about the so-called “war on women,” as the party seeking to re-elect the president and win a recall election has dubbed it, I began paying a little more attention when I heard about the Texas legislature’s latest project to illegalize abortions. It’s a law requiring women to submit to a sonogram in advance of the twenty-four-hour waiting period before the procedure can be administered. According to the Texas Department of State Health Services, “the doctor is required to display the sonogram images and make the heart beat audible … [and] must also provide a verbal explanation of the sonogram results.” 

Other than feeling joyful that I wasn’t a Texan, I remained mostly disinterested in their onerous restriction until the topic showed up on the Association of Opinion Journalists list-serve I subscribe to as a member of that organization. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau had just released a “Doonesbury” series chronicling a woman’s trip to a Texas health care clinic for an abortion and the editors were engaging in a provocative conversation about the pros and cons of running it. Of the six-strip series, the most controversial frame is one that depicts the woman wincing as the doctor inserts a vaginal ultrasound and declares, “By the authority vested in me by the GOP base, I thee rape.”

While I don’t think Trudeau’s strip caused the kind of stir newspapers predicted it might, what I do think is that the legislators who passed the law don’t know a fetus from a football. I’ve had dozens of ultrasounds in my two-decade career as an adult woman, one so early—the embryo was barely out of the fallopian tube and into the uterus—that the technician couldn’t find evidence of a pregnancy on the monitor and the doctors thought it might be ectopic (stuck in the fallopian tube). My point is that you can’t hear a fetal heartbeat until a pregnancy is well under way, yet tests can detect a pregnancy within days of conception. Requiring a doctor to “make the heartbeat audible” won’t even be possible in the many cases when a woman will go racing to the clinic as soon as she knows she’s pregnant. 

It’s a finer point on a huge debate, but it begs the larger question of the law’s legitimacy. Not to mention whether a room full of politicians (mostly men) should be passing laws, and judgment, on whether women are properly informed about their situation. The law is condescending, unnecessary and could prove to be a turnoff for people whose minds aren’t made up about a woman’s right to choose. 

And now Wisconsin has its own slightly less offensive but equally patronizing edict requiring women to submit to a physical exam by a doctor before receiving legal abortion-inducing drugs. The Wisconsin Medical Society, an apolitical organization, sent a letter to Gov. Walker asking him to reconsider signing it. (He didn’t.) WMS chief medical officer Tim Bartholow, a family medicine physician, told me he finds the bill troubling on a number of levels. “The practice of medicine takes a lot of judgment and is a very private matter between a man or a woman and their chosen, trusted advisor,” he says. “It shifts our obligation from taking care of the patient only to potentially taking care of the state ... It does put somebody else in the exam room.”

But what troubles me most about this kind of legislation isn’t that it’s pro-life—or anti-choice, depending on whose side you’re on. It’s that it’s another tacky, fraudulent attempt to force women into submission (plus doctors could be criminally charged for not complying … say what?). Speaking from far too much experience, I can tell you that women will submit to more ultrasounds and probing exams than the health care system can probably afford if they and their doctors deem it necessary. In these cases, it’s clearly so very not.

There, talked to death. Again.


Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.

Find more columns here.

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