Sound Science and Unsound Ideology: Sixty Years of Obstetric Ultrasound

Ultrasound image used in an anti-abortion billboard in Ireland, 2012. Photo: The Vagenda

For decades now, ultrasound technology has been a fixture in the journey from pregnancy to parenthood. It has also become a prized weapon among abortion opponents in the battle over reproductive rights.

Ultrasound, which uses high-frequency sound waves to render images of a developing fetus, had its beginning 60 years ago this week, with the publication of a seminal paper in the British medical journal The Lancet. The development of the technology has a colorful history, one involving flying mammals, German submarines, a desert-dwelling inventor, and countless medical professionals who saw a range of patient care possibilities.


Ultrasound is a powerful tool, which can benefit patients or be used as a cudgel by abortion opponents.


But that colorful history belies the drab and fuzzy appearance of most ultrasounds. That limitation, though, has never stopped it from taking on enormous significance. When the technology was first developed, it gave obstetricians an unprecedented ability to survey fetal development, making it one of the most important advances in their field during the latter half of the 20th century.

By the same token, ultrasound has not only been a valuable medical tool but also a powerful storytelling tool. Today, it is often put to use four or more times before a patient’s due date. While the FDA and other authorities advise against ultrasounds that aren’t medically necessary — recommending just two for a low-risk pregnancy — many patients opt for additional, elective ultrasounds for the sake of having keepsake images. Posting those images online has become a popular way to share their news with family and friends. Continue reading

Credibility Is the First Casualty: Behind the Pro-Gun Blame-Dodging That Targets Planned Parenthood

In the wake of February’s mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the debate over gun control reached a fever pitch in the news and on the ground. As CNN reported, in the seven days after the shooting, there were more than a thousand mentions of “gun control” by ABC, CBS, and other major broadcasters. Survivors, student activists, and gun control advocates kept the story front and center by mobilizing across the nation, organizing school walkouts and March For Our Lives events to demand smarter gun control laws and safer classrooms and communities.


To men invested in an old order of male dominance, gun culture and reproductive justice are in direct conflict with each other.


Planned Parenthood was among the many voices calling for an end to gun violence. Just two days after the shooting, Planned Parenthood Action posted a call for reform on their blog, noting that 96 lives are lost to gun violence daily. The post made its position clear: “As a health care provider, Planned Parenthood is committed to the fundamental right of all people to live safe and healthy lives without the fear of violence.”

Numerous Planned Parenthood affiliates were doing the same. On the local front, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona was signal-boosting relevant articles on its Facebook page, including a profile of Emma González, who quickly became one of the most outspoken and recognized survivor activists in Parkland.

For pro-gun conservatives, on the other hand, the Parkland shooting was a call to go on the defensive and double down on their messaging. For a long while, a common tactic has been to deflect criticism by blaming access to abortion for “a culture of death,” as Rep. Kelly Townsend (R-Mesa) put it, or by peddling the notion that Planned Parenthood takes more lives than gun violence. In March, Matt Walsh dredged up that argument on the conservative website The Daily Wire. He dripped with sarcasm, stating he was “impressed [Planned Parenthood] could find time” to join the debate on gun control, “considering they’re also wrapped up in their war against babies and life itself.” To Walsh, Planned Parenthood is not in the business of promoting safe and healthy lives, because he looks past the lives of women. Continue reading

Brothers in Arms, Part 4: The Gathering Storm of Patriots and Plainclothes Politicians

This article is our final installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion. Previously, this series examined the connections that developed in the 1980s between white supremacists and the anti-abortion movement, which bred a growing extremism and led to the first assassination of an abortion provider in 1993. This installment looks at the threats that developed in the aftermath.

1996 Planned Parenthood publication detailing militia movement links to anti-abortion terrorism

On March 11, 1993, Michael Frederick Griffin approached Dr. David Gunn outside his Pensacola clinic and shot him in the back three times, reportedly shouting, “Don’t kill any more babies!” Griffin, who had been radicalized by former Klansman and anti-abortion crusader John Burt, committed the first assassination of an abortion provider in the U.S. The following year, 1994, saw a record four murders and eight attempted murders by anti-abortion extremists, and more than half of the estimated 1,500 abortion clinics in the U.S. were targets of anti-abortion crimes, such as arson or bombings, in the first seven months of 1994. Although the next two years would see decreases in some types of anti-abortion crimes, clinics have never been free of threats in any of the years since.


Since the 1990s, anti-government groups have stirred racial hatred and anti-abortion extremism on the right.


Just weeks after Dr. Gunn’s assassination, the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives ended a 51-day armed standoff at a compound in Waco, Texas, the home of a religious cult known as the Branch Davidians. The standoff began in response to reports that the cult was abusing children and stockpiling illegal weapons. The siege ended on April 19, 1993 — 25 years ago this month — when the cult’s leader, David Koresh, ordered his followers to ignite fires that soon engulfed the compound in flames. By the end of the standoff, 75 people had lost their lives.

The federal government’s actions in Waco had overwhelming public support — 70 percent according to a poll conducted shortly after the siege — but to many right-wing activists, who held a deep distrust of the federal government, Waco was a gross display of heavy-handed government intrusion; tyrannical, military-style policing; and violent intolerance of religious liberty. Waco thus became a rallying cry for a growing, militant movement in the political right. Continue reading

Women Against Forced Breeding

Justice for Jane demonstration. Photo: Karen Thurston

Why are these women, awash in a sea of “pink slips,” all of whom have had abortions, standing on the steps in front of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in late February 2018, demonstrating live on YouTube? Why are they demanding the firing of the director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement, Scott Lloyd, the bureaucrat who forces young women to breed against their will?

Why are we protesting? Because we are not having it! And neither is Sen. Patty Murray, who took to the floor of the Senate to amplify our views, pointing out that, once again, our government has overstepped its authority, ignored the rule of law, and allowed one man’s ideology and/or religion to determine the rules for women in his custody. And neither is the House Pro-Choice Caucus having it, as members lined up soon after the protest to sign a “pink slip” to terminate Lloyd.

House Pro-Choice Caucus members Zoe Lofgren, Diana DeGette, and Jerrold Nadler sign “pink slip” to terminate Scott Lloyd. Photo: @RepJerryNadler

Here is the latest story in the long line of stories about our government’s disrespect for women.

Teenager Jane Doe escaped an abusive Salvadoran family and entered the United States as an undocumented, unaccompanied minor. She was detained in Texas and placed in the custody of the Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR), which is responsible for sheltering these youth. When she discovered she was pregnant she asked for an abortion. So, imagine Jane, alone in a foreign country, uncertain of her immigration prospects, but holding onto dreams for a better future for herself. Unfortunately for her, the ORR is headed by an ideologue named Scott Lloyd. Continue reading

Brothers in Arms, Part 3: White Supremacy and the War on Abortion

This article is our third installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion. Previously, this series explored the first years after Roe v. Wade, when a fight to preserve school segregation brought together Christian conservatives, who then took on the issue of abortion. This installment examines the connections that developed later between racist groups and the anti-abortion movement in the 1980s, which fed a growing extremism that escalated in the following decade.

KKK members picket Carter campaign office in Alabama, September 1, 1980. Photo: Atlanta Journal-Constitution, courtesy of Georgia State University

The U.S. entered the 1980s with a new political force at work, one that had proven its strength by playing a role in the landslide defeat of incumbent President Jimmy Carter and the election of Ronald Reagan. The religious right had been slow to coalesce in the 1970s, but when it finally did, it became a power that shaped national politics.

What had taken time was trying out — and then abandoning — issues like school prayer and pornography, hoping to find the political lightning bolt that would unite and energize the religious right. When they finally did find their compelling issue, the religious right had a problem: It wasn’t one they could use publicly.


During the Reagan years, there was ample crossover between white supremacist and anti-abortion groups.


Beginning in the 1960s, the South was dotted with private Christian schools that provided white Southerners, many of whom were wary of racial integration, with an alternative to the public schools that were undergoing desegregation. But by the 1970s, those private schools were under attack, coming under the scrutiny of both the IRS and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) for their admissions and hiring policies.

The issue brought together key figures in the religious right, like Jerry Falwell, Bob Jones, and Paul Weyrich, and they made it their mission to defeat Carter’s reelection bid, hoping the next president would put the IRS and EEOC on a shorter leash. But to build their movement publicly and nationally, they needed an issue that would stir a broader base of sympathy, branding them as believers instead of bigots. They picked abortion — namely, demanding a constitutional amendment to outlaw it — and they enjoyed a resounding success. Carter refused their demands and lost. Reagan, the candidate they endorsed — and whose party supported their demand in its official platform — won by one of the largest margins in history. Continue reading

Arizona Senate Bill 1394 Seeks Additional Abortion Restrictions

The Arizona Legislature is at it again. Just in case Arizona state laws aren’t intrusive enough, state Sen. Nancy Barto has introduced SB 1394, a bill that would require doctors to ask patients why they are seeking an abortion. SB 1394 would add to Arizona’s already robust reporting requirements, bordering on harassment.


SB 1394 will be heard at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, February 14, by the Senate Health and Human Services Committee.


Arizona already requires people seeking abortions to disclose all kinds of personal information, including age; race; ethnicity; marital status; educational background; and number of prior pregnancies, miscarriages, and abortions. SB 1394 inserts the government even deeper into the doctor-patient relationship with questions that are much more intrusive, such as:

  • Can the patient afford a child?
  • Does the patient not want children?
  • Was the patient raped?
  • Is the pregnancy a result of incest?
  • Did the patient or the sexual partner have an extramarital affair?
  • Was the patient abused by the would-be father?

SB 1394 would require doctors to report the answers of the survey to the Arizona Department of Health Services. Continue reading

Brothers in Arms, Part 2: Race and Abortion from Roe to the Reagan Years

This article is our second installment in a series that explores the historical and contemporary links between racial intolerance and opposition to abortion. Previously, this series examined how fears of immigration — and racist notions that associated abortion with the barbarism of so-called “savage” races — fueled the opposition to abortion that led to its prohibition in the late 1800s. This installment examines the social forces that helped racism and opposition to abortion converge again in the first years after Roe v. Wade.

Replica of a banner used at NAACP headquarters from 1920 to 1938

A principle of democracy holds that while majority rule should serve as the guiding force of government, at times it must be reconciled with the rights of individuals and minorities. It was an idea Thomas Jefferson captured in his inaugural speech of 1801:

All … will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail … that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect.

With that understanding, the framers wrote the Constitution to include provisions for a judicial branch, composed of judges whose lifetime appointments would free them from the pressures of elections and afford them greater independence in their decisions. The branch would serve as the nation’s highest judicial body, above state and local courts.


Before his obsession with abortion and Tinky Winky, Jerry Falwell fought civil rights and integration.


For much of U.S. history, local, state, and federal judicial systems existed alongside another judicial system, one far less formal and conceived not in the interest of protecting minorities, but often in meting out the harshest possible punishments for them. It was the vigilante justice of lynching, sometimes known as Lynch law. Named after the Virginia plantation owner Charles Lynch, it was a form of mob justice that took root in the Revolutionary War era, before an official court system was fully established. It came to mean quick trials that ended in public hangings.

Though lynching was initially used against British loyalists, eventually Southern blacks became the overwhelming majority of its victims. Many Native Americans, Asians, Jews, and Mexicans were also lynched. According to the NAACP, between 1882 and 1968, in the period of racial tension in the post-slavery and civil rights years, 4,743 lynchings took place, and 3,446 of its victims were black. Rather than taking place under the cover of night or in countryside seclusion, many lynchings were staged in broad daylight, even in front of courthouses, and they were often advertised beforehand in newspapers — a blunt assertion of their existence as a separate judicial system for people of color. Though associated with the South, they took place in the North as well. In fact, only a few states — Alaska, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island — had no lynchings between 1882 and 1968. Continue reading