We Have No Choice: A Story of the Texas Sonogram Law
For the entire transcript, to listen to te program, to read mre about the program, to link to Carolyn Jones' articles, etc., please visit the cite: http://www.npr.org/2013/01/22/169059701/we-have-no-choice-a-story-of-the-texas-sonogram-law
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today is the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. But since then, many states have passed laws that restrict women's access to abortion. According to the Guttmacher Institute, more state-level abortion restrictions were enacted in 2011 than in any prior year. And last year brought the second-highest number of restrictions ever.
We're going to look at what's happening in Texas, with a journalist who wrote about her abortion under the new Texas sonogram law. Later, we'll hear from the executive director of two Christian-run pregnancy centers, in Dallas, that encourage teens and women with unplanned pregnancies to keep the baby or put it up for adoption.
My first guest, Carolyn Jones, learned halfway through her pregnancy with her second child that the baby she was carrying had a severe developmental problem. She and her husband wanted a baby very much. But they decided to get an abortion, a decision she describes as heartbreaking.
She had her abortion in Austin, last February; just two weeks after Texas implemented its mandatory sonogram law. For reasons she'll explain, this law made the abortion even more heartbreaking. Her personal experience led her to write a series of articles for the Texas Observer, about how the state legislature has restricted access to abortion and has cut off state funding to Planned Parenthood clinics.
Carolyn Jones, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about some of the things you learned about changes in the Texas abortion law, from your own abortion experience. You wanted this child very much. You were hoping to have a brother for your little girl. And you had the abortion in January of last year. You had had a sonogram halfway through the pregnancy. What did the sonogram reveal?
CAROLYN JONES: What we'd expected the sonogram to reveal was the gender of the baby, the sex of the baby, which it did; but it also revealed that our baby had a major neurological flaw. And his brain, spine and legs had not developed correctly. And the doctor wasn't even sure whether he would make it to term - that the flaw was so serious - but that if he did make it to term, he would lead a life of great suffering. He would be in and out of hospitals, and it would be a life of pain and suffering for him.
GROSS: This was a hard choice for you to make. Can you talk a little bit about how you and your husband chose to proceed with an abortion instead of having the baby?
JONES: Mm-hmm. For me and my husband, we already have one child - a daughter; she's almost 3. And we love her so intensely. And I know that anyone else who, as a parent - will understand that intense parental impulse to protect your child from anything; absolutely any pain, you want to protect them from it. And when we heard that our second, very much-wanted child, if we brought him into the world, his life would be one of constant pain and suffering - to us, it was an instinctive response to think for this very brief moment, we have a choice about whether to introduce him to a life of pain or not.
And so to us, it was actually - it was a terrible choice; it was a heart-wrenching one. But it was also a simple one because as his parents, we chose what we believed was best for him, to prevent him from knowing a life of pain. And that was, in fact, quite a quick choice we were able to make as well, within minutes of my doctor giving us the terrible news. It was also almost an instinctive response about the choice that we would make. And this month, it's almost a year to the day that we made that decision. It was still the right decision for us because it was an instinctive one about protecting our child from pain.
GROSS: Once you made that choice, there were several steps you had to go through before the state permitted you to have the abortion that you chose to have. One of those steps had to do with a mandatory sonogram. You had already had a sonogram, the one that revealed the defect in the baby's nervous system. Why did you have to have another?
JONES: I actually, I'd had two sonograms that day. The first one was the one that revealed the anomaly. The second one was, we went straight to a specialist to confirm it. Those were both medically necessary sonograms, to understand exactly what the problem was. The third sonogram was one that was mandated by the state of Texas. It was a new law that had come into effect just two weeks prior to that day. And the law was intended to - let's see, the way the politicians described it, was to promote informed consent. The politicians want women who are having abortions to have the sonograms so that they can see the life of the child that they're about to end. So it's an entirely ideological justification for why a woman would have to have a sonogram. It's got nothing to do with - there are no medical reasons that the state required me to have it.
GROSS: Now, as it turns out - before we go any further, I want to mention that, you know, the law had just gone into effect, and a lot of health care providers weren't sure what they were mandated to do. As it turns out, under the law, you wouldn't have had to undergo this mandatory sonogram because the baby you were carrying had irreversible developmental problems.
JONES: That's right.
GROSS: But your doctor didn't know that yet because it was so unclear, and I don't think...
JONES: That's right, yeah.
GROSS: Yeah. So you had the mandatory sonogram that women - with few exceptions - have to get in Texas now. So what are the requirements surrounding the mandatory sonogram? And as we just explained, you ended up having this sonogram because your doctors didn't realize yet that you were exempted.
JONES: The requirements are that a woman must have the sonogram 24 hours before the abortion procedure can go ahead. The doctor who performs the abortion must also perform the sonogram - which, as you can imagine, creates all sorts of logistical nightmares for clinicians who are traveling from clinic to clinic. They're now having to add in this extra day, to provide the sonograms as well.
On top of providing the sonogram that every woman - with a few exceptions - must undergo before having an abortion, every woman must then wait for 24 hours. And, I mean, even though I was technically exempt from having had the sonogram, I wasn't exempt from the 24-hour waiting period.
Sorry, just to go back to the sonogram itself, the doctor would then have to describe the physical characteristics of the fetus. And the doctor - he or she - would also play the fetal heartbeat as well, for you to hear. The doctor would then have to read through a formal script, written by the state, about the abortion procedure as well as the risks of abortions. And two of the risks that are mentioned in this list are an increased chance of getting breast cancer, as a result of having an abortion; and an increased chance of having negative psychological outcomes - both of which, I should point out, have been discredited by mainstream medical science. Nonetheless, these two discredited facts, as well as - sort of unnecessarily graphic description of the abortion procedure itself, are part of the government script that a clinician must read to a patient before the abortion can go ahead.
Other parts of the requirements, as well, is that before the woman can go ahead with the abortion, she must also listen to a government script that tells her that the father of the child is liable to pay child support, whether he wants the abortion or not; and that the state may or may not pay for your maternity care. So these are all things that have to be included in the script that the woman hears, regardless of whether she wants to have this abortion or not.
GROSS: Let me just back up a bit. So the doctor performing the abortion, that has to be the same doctor who's doing the sonogram ...
GROSS: ...and describing what he or she sees, to the woman who's having an abortion. So does that mean - like, in your case, the sonogram reveals terrible developmental problems in the fetus. Would the doctor be required to tell you that? Or is the doctor just supposed to say, I see arms; I see beginnings of legs; I see a little head - do you know what I'm saying?
JONES: I do, and I do think there is - you know, there are sort of formal characteristics that the doctor is required to describe. I have to admit that I imagine that the doctor, if he or she saw, you know, anomalies, they would describe them. But I have to admit, with the doctor, when he began to read this description to me - describe it to me, I found it so traumatizing that I heard the beginning; where he said that he could see four healthy chambers of the heart. And it's true - is that my very unwell child did have a healthy heart; not much else that was healthy, but the heart was. And to hear that was so traumatizing, that I did try and turn away, and try not to listen. So I really can't say what is part of the formal (technical difficulties), but I do imagine that they would have described what they saw, and perhaps my doctor did. I can't say.
GROSS: It sounds like the nurse wanted to help you not listen...
JONES: Mm-hmm. That's right.
GROSS: ...because she saw how traumatized you were, and she turned up the volume of the radio as the doctor was describing the fetus while reading the sonogram. Did that make you feel any better - like, at least somebody was trying to protect you from this mandatory sonogram?
JONES: In a very strange way, it did because in the room, at the time, was me, my husband, the doctor and the nurse. And there was not one of us in that room who wanted to go through that process of having to go through the sonogram. And, you know - and the doctor said to me, before it all started - and I was, you know, I was in a very emotionally fragile state. He did say to me, I'm so sorry I have to do this but if I don't, I will lose my license.
And that actually really helped; to imagine that all four of us were in it together, in a way. They showed such compassion for me in that no one agreed with it. And that did, in a strange way, help. And also, with the nurse turning the radio on - you know, I think it was, you know, maybe a D.J. or perhaps a commercial for used cars or something, clattering in the background. It was, you know, a slightly surreal experience. But again, the whole experience was so unpleasant that I appreciated any efforts they could make to stay within the law but still, you know, behave compassionately towards me and my husband.
GROSS: And one more sonogram question. You know, we've heard so much about transvaginal ultrasounds being mandated; you know, attempts to mandate that in some states. In Texas, it's not transvaginal; it's just an on-the-belly sonogram, right?
JONES: Actually, it is transvaginal. For anyone in the early stages of pregnancy, the only way that you can actually get a good look at the fetus is to use a transvaginal probe. For me, because I was at 20 weeks of pregnancy, I had the old - what would be called the jelly on the belly; which is, you know, the wand that you pass over your stomach. But for any woman in early stages of pregnancy - and in fact, you know, thousands of women in the last year have had to have a government-mandated transvaginal probe, for no medical reason.
GROSS: The goal of the mandated sonogram is to get the woman who is planning on having an abortion, to reconsider. What impact did the sonogram, and the recitation of the information that the government mandates the doctor to tell you - which is intended to discourage the woman from having an abortion - what impact did that actually have on you, and on your frame of mind, when you proceeded with the abortion?
JONES: It had no impact on my decision to go ahead with the abortion; none whatsoever. It was a private choice I'd made, and I was going to stick with that private choice no matter the people who tried to interfere with me. In terms of my broader frame of mind, it did make me feel very angry, and I still do. I still feel very angry that someone who has absolutely no say in, you know, my personal decisions, could still be there at that moment. The darkest day of my life was the day that we - I found out that information and had to make that decision. That someone could invade upon that - a politician, who has absolutely no jurisdiction over my private life - that they could invade upon that and so reduce my dignity, I do feel that that's an incredible injustice; and I still do, which is why I felt the need to write about it.