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

The Clash of Population and Prejudice in Madrigal v. Quilligan

Mural (detail) in Boyle Heights, East L.A. Photo: Mictlan Murals

In August 1973, Guadalupe Acosta was admitted to the county hospital in East Los Angeles. She had been suffering from labor pain for hours, but she would soon endure even more misery in the delivery room. She recounted later how the attending physician worked aggressively to induce labor, pushing down forcefully on her abdomen — even hitting her stomach when he was caught in the swing of her flailing arms. In the end, all the torment she endured culminated in the death of her baby in birth.

Acosta later said she was “very inattentive” in the aftermath of the experience. “People sometimes have to tell me things twice. It’s not that I don’t understand them, it’s that I’m not there.” For Acosta, it was not just the loss of her baby that devastated her but also the loss of her ability to have children in the future. She found out, months later, that the hospital physician had decided to sterilize her. At the time, she had been too traumatized to understand what was happening.


Just as the right to access birth control and abortion should be defended, so should the right to have children.


The University of Southern California – Los Angeles County Medical Center (USC-LAC Medical Center), as it was officially called in the 1970s, was a hospital that many in East L.A. tried to avoid. It was a place they would only visit out of necessity if other hospitals weren’t affordable. For Dr. Bernard Rosenfeld, who worked there as a resident in obstetrics and gynecology, it was not hard to see how his own department reinforced that reputation.

Acosta’s traumatic experience was similar to other cases Rosenfeld witnessed — cases that showed a disturbing pattern of subjecting women, especially Spanish-speaking women, to sterilization without their informed consent. According to Rosenfeld, insistent medical staff would push sterilization on patients “before they go home” — often while they were still in pain or exhausted — so that they wouldn’t “change their mind by the time they come back to clinic.” Patients who had limited understanding of English were often uncertain of what was happening. Shocked by the unethical practices, Rosenfeld secretly copied hundreds of medical records to document what was happening at USC-LAC Medical Center. 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

What’s in a Name? Frances Oldham Kelsey and the Power of Skepticism

If Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey had been named Mary, Helen, or Dorothy, it’s possible that thousands of babies would have died or been born with debilitating birth defects.

In the mid-1930s, after earning a master’s degree in pharmacology in her native Canada, Frances Oldham wrote to Eugene Geiling, a researcher at the University of Chicago, asking to work in his lab and study for a doctorate. Assuming Frances was a man, Dr. Geiling replied with an offer of a scholarship, addressing the letter to “Mr. Oldham.”


Dr. Kelsey upends the stereotype of the government bureaucrat. She saved lives by being a stickler for details.


Reflecting on the incident in an autobiography, she remembered Dr. Geiling as a “very conservative and old-fashioned” man who “did not hold too much with women as scientists.” His assumption that Frances Oldham was male might have played a role in her scholarship and subsequent education, which prepared her for a career that touched every American.

From an Early Victory in Chicago to a New Career in Washington, D.C.

After moving to Chicago, Frances Oldham earned a doctorate in pharmacology in 1938 and a medical degree in 1950. Along the way, she got married, becoming Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, and gave birth to two daughters.

Her work in Dr. Geiling’s lab provided early experience in unraveling medical mysteries. In 1937, more than 100 people, including 34 children, died after taking a liquid sulfa drug formulated with an artificial fruit flavor. Dr. Geiling’s team of scientists soon identified the problem: The medicine was composed primarily of antifreeze — along with the active ingredient, coloring, and flavorings. It was sent to market with no testing. Public outrage led to the 1938 passage of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which required manufacturers to provide evidence to the FDA that their drugs were safe. 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

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

In the Wake of Roe v. Wade: The Helms Amendment

USAID is essential in reducing infant and maternal mortality in the developing world.

This Sunday, December 17, is the 44th anniversary of the Helms Amendment.

What is the Helms Amendment and why should we care about it?

The simple answer to the first part of that question is that it is language added to the 1973 foreign aid bill. It reads:

No foreign assistance funds may be used to pay for the performance of abortion as a method of family planning or to motivate or coerce any person to practice abortions.


The Helms Amendment was the first federal legislative attack on abortion rights in the post-Roe era.


But of course nothing to do with abortion is ever simple. Think of the Senate in December 1973, just 11 months after the Roe v. Wade decision made abortion legal. In the intervening months the war in Vietnam ended; Henry Kissinger visited China; the Watergate hearings and the first trials of the conspirators began; Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned after being convicted of accepting bribes; President Nixon named Gerald Ford to replace Agnew; there were bloody coups in Greece and Chile; the Yom Kippur War was fought in the Middle East; Saudi Arabia led the oil embargo against the United States, raising gasoline prices from 25 cents per gallon to more than a dollar; Nixon tried to stop the Watergate investigation by firing the special prosecutor, Archibald Cox; the top two people in the Justice Department resigned rather than do so, leaving Robert Bork to carry out that order, in what became known as the Saturday Night Massacre; eventually Nixon was compelled to turn over his tapes after fighting the order in court.

In other words, 1973 was a turbulent year, a time of great change and political turmoil in Washington. Continue reading