Pre-abortion ultrasounds in Texas

In May 2011, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed into law a mandate that women seeking an abortion first have a sonogram. (Source: Rodolfo Gonzalez/American-Statesman)
In May 2011, Texas Gov. Rick Perry signed into law a mandate that women seeking an abortion first have a sonogram. (Source: Rodolfo Gonzalez/American-Statesman)

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times describes the 2011 Texas law requiring women who are seeking abortions to first have an ultrasound as demeaning and humiliating in a March 3, 2012, column.

Kristof’s commentary opens:

Here’s what a woman in Texas now faces if she seeks an abortion.

Under a new law that took effect three weeks ago with the strong backing of Gov. Rick Perry, she first must typically endure an ultrasound probe inserted into her vagina. Then she listens to the audio thumping of the fetal heartbeat and watches the fetus on an ultrasound screen.

She must listen to a doctor explain the body parts and internal organs of the fetus as they’re shown on the monitor. She signs a document saying that she understands all this, and it is placed in her medical files. Finally, she goes home and must wait 24 hours before returning to get the abortion.

The mentioned "probe" has a formal name, we noted in a March 2011 fact check, which is "transvaginal sonogram." At the time, we were reviewing state Rep. Carol Alvarado's claim, made during House debate of the Texas proposal, that a woman who is eight to 10 weeks pregnant would have to get a transvaginal sonogram.

Alvarado told us that she meant to say that women who are up to eight to 12 weeks pregnant need a transvaginal sonogram because the better-known abdominal ultrasound doesn’t always produce a clear enough image.

According to a medical encyclopedia on the University of Maryland Medical Center website, the transvaginal ultrasound looks at a woman's reproductive organs by placing a probe into the vagina. The internal probe "sends out sound waves, which reflect off body structures," the site says. "A computer receives these waves and uses them to create a picture."

An abdominal ultrasound is performed externally, the site says. A water-based gel is spread over the woman’s pelvic area, which helps the probe transmit sound waves, generating an image.

Most of the experts we reached agreed that to produce a clear image, a transvaginal sonogram is best, if not the only choice, up to about the seventh week of pregnancy. But between seven and 10 weeks, another type of sonogram may produce a viewable image, according to some doctors. We rated Alvarado's statement Mostly True.

Virginia's legislature just passed a similar measure mandating that doctors perform an ultrasound on women seeking abortions. That measure was amended, though, so that no one would be required to have a transvaginal ultrasound. The change was made after a national furor erupted over the possibility that some women would be forced to receive the transvaginal sonogram — and after that part of the proposal was ridiculed on Saturday Night Live and by Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.

Virgina Gov. Bob McDonnell on Feb. 22 urged the the Republican-controlled General Assembly to make the change. In a written statement, the governor said he had been initially unaware that the legislation might require the invasive procedure.

McDonnell is expected to sign the bill into law.