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Ultrasound Debate at Statehouse

Opponents: controversial measure 'shames and demeans women'


An effort at the Idaho Statehouse would shadow a Virginia effort to force women to undergo ultrasounds prior to having an abortion with the introduction of a controversial measure that opponents say would add burden and trauma to women facing crisis pregnancies.

"The objective is to reduce the number of elective abortions," said bill sponsor District 14 Republican Sen. Chuck Winder.

Winder crafted the legislation with the help of Idaho Right to Life, following Virginia's lead to require women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound or sonogram prior to having the procedure.

"We feel this is what a woman needs to know in order to make an informed decision," said Kerry Uhlenkott, Idaho Right to Life's legislative director. "A lot of women were not given this information and they regretted it the rest of their life."

An early draft of the measure closely followed Virginia's legislation, requiring transvaginal ultrasounds. Virginia's proposal drew fire for requiring a procedure that critics called invasive and likened to mechanical rape. Virginia lawmakers ultimately caved to pressure, amending the proposal to cut the transvaginal ultrasound requirement from the measure--a move opponents said will likely doom that bill.

Winder also bowed to pressure from some Idaho constituents, removing the transvaginal ultrasound provision in the original draft of his bill, inserting language that calls on the ultrasound method to be left to the discretion of the physician. But opponents said the new language didn't protect women from undergoing a transvaginal ultrasound.

"It appears to give an option, but really there is no option," said Hannah Brass, legislative director of Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest, a lobbying branch of Planned Parenthood.

Brass said that while the bill allowed physicians to decide which ultrasound method to use and doesn't mandate a transvaginal ultrasound, a doctor may still elect to use the transvaginal method if it offers a better image of the fetus.

"In reality, this does the same thing as the Virginia legislation," Brass said. "The purpose of bills like this is to shame and demean women. It forces a medical procedure based on politics not medicine."

Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of women's rights advocates have stepped up in opposition to the legislation, voicing concerns that the law would create new barriers to accessing abortion and further traumatize women facing crisis pregnancies.

Winder and Idaho Right to Life said the bill enhances informed-consent laws that provide information about abortion risks and gestation to pregnant women. In 2007, the Idaho legislature passed a measure that gave women the right to choose to view an ultrasound image prior to abortion.

"I don't think there's any reason to go any further than that," Brass said. "We should trust a woman to make her own decisions based on her own wants and needs and based on what her physician says and based on medicine."

Winder said he felt the heat from some constituents, criticizing him for meddling in women's reproductive issues, not to be tampered with by a man and a largely-male Legislature. But Winder noted the legislation was brought to him by two women and he stands to represent the unborn and the public.

"I feel like the fetus--the baby--is someone that has not been spoken for, and the public, the state, has an interest," Winder said.

The bill would provide women with a list of providers, overseen by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, that would offer free ultrasounds prior to abortions. But Sara Kiesler, spokesperson with Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest, said the language of the bill could force women to undergo two ultrasounds. The legislation mandates that a physician must sign off on an ultrasound while also setting provisions that would allow women to access a free ultrasound.

"It's unclear," Kiesler said of the measure's wording.

The options for a free ultrasound were weaved into the bill amid concerns that the cost of the roughly $200 ultrasound procedure would hamper access to abortion. But the free ultrasounds touted by proponents are often offered by crisis pregnancy centers that don't always have a physician on staff. Nor do they have to abide by heath-care privacy regulations or other health-care mandates that licensed doctors must follow. This could force women who sought a free ultrasound into needing a second procedure as the first test may not fulfill the bill's requirement of having the backing of a physician. Victims of rape or incest are also not exempt from the measure.

"For a victim of rape or incest, it could be a double trauma," Brass said.