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

Book Club: Her Body, Our Laws

By 2014, law professor Michelle Oberman was no stranger to El Salvador. She had already spent four years making research trips to the Central American country, but that June she would need a local guide during her travels. An activist had volunteered to accompany her on the interview she needed to conduct, a task that required a two-and-a-half-hour trip outside the city to an area that is not well mapped — in fact, to a village where there are “no signs or numbers” to help visitors find their way among the cinder-block houses and the patchwork of land where the clucks and lowing of livestock punctuate the silence.


Paid maternity leave, monthly child allowances, and affordable day care and health care decrease demand for abortion.


Once in the village, it took Oberman and her guide an additional 45 minutes to find the house they needed to visit. Inside, a curtain was all that separated the main room from a small bedroom in the back. A bucket and outdoor basin served as a shower, and an outhouse completed the bathroom facilities. The living conditions there were not uncommon — not in a country where roughly 40 percent of the population lives in poverty.

That poverty was both the cause and consequence of a conflict between left-wing rebels and government forces that lasted from 1979 to 1992. In many ways, that conflict set the stage for the abortion war in El Salvador, the subject of Oberman’s recently published book, Her Body, Our Laws: On the Frontlines of the Abortion War from El Salvador to Oklahoma (Beacon Press, 2018).

From Civil War to Abortion War

In the early 1980s, the small republic of El Salvador was in the grip of civil war, while in the U.S., debates raged over the emerging Sanctuary Movement that was aiding Salvadoran and other Central American refugees. The movement began in 1981, when Quaker activist Jim Corbett and Presbyterian Pastor John Fife, both of Tucson, pledged to “protect, defend, and advocate for” the many people fleeing warfare and political turmoil in El Salvador and neighboring countries. Tucson was at the forefront of the movement as refugees crossed through Mexico and arrived at the Arizona border. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Is Chlamydia Bad?

chlamydiaPerhaps your sexual partner has informed you that they have been diagnosed with chlamydia, and you need to get tested, too. Maybe you’ve been notified by the health department that you might have been exposed to chlamydia. And it’s possible that you barely know what chlamydia even is, let alone how much you should be worried about it.

Chlamydia is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) out there, especially among young people. It can be spread by oral, vaginal, and anal sex, particularly when condoms or dental dams were not used correctly or at all. It is often a “silent” infection, meaning that most people with chlamydia don’t experience symptoms — you can’t assume you don’t have it because you feel fine, and you can’t assume your partner doesn’t have it because they look fine. If you’re sexually active, the best way to protect yourself is to know your partner’s STD status and to practice safer sex.


Chlamydia increases risk for HIV, leads to fertility and pregnancy problems, and might increase cancer risk.


The good news about chlamydia is that it’s easy to cure — but first, you need to know you have it! And that’s why it’s important for sexually active people to receive regular STD screening. Left untreated, chlamydia can increase risk of acquiring HIV, can hurt fertility in both males and females, can be harmful during pregnancy, and might even increase risk for a certain type of cancer. So why let it wreak havoc on your body when you could just get tested and take a quick round of antibiotics?

To find out just how seriously you should take chlamydia, let’s answer a few common questions about it.

Can Chlamydia Increase HIV Risk?

Chlamydia does not cause HIV. Chlamydia is caused by a type of bacteria, while HIV is a virus that causes a fatal disease called AIDS. However, many STDs, including chlamydia, can increase risk for an HIV infection, meaning that someone with an untreated chlamydia infection is more likely to be infected with HIV if exposed to the virus. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Will STDs Go Away on Their Own?

teensCan gonorrhea go away without treatment? Does chlamydia eventually clear up? Can trichomoniasis go away on its own? These are the kinds of questions people pose to Google before Google sends them here — at least that’s what I learned by looking at the blog’s stats. They’re tricky questions to tackle, and for so many reasons.

Some viral STDs stay with you for life, such as herpes and HIV. Others, such as hepatitis B and human papillomavirus (HPV), can be prevented with vaccines but cannot be cured. It’s also possible for the immune system to defeat hepatitis B virus and HPV — but in some cases, these viruses are able to settle in for the long haul, causing chronic infections that can endure for life and even lead to cancer.


Left untreated, syphilis can kill, and gonorrhea can cause infertility.


Non-viral STDs, like chlamydia and gonorrhea, can be cured. However, they usually don’t have symptoms, or symptoms can come and go, making it seem like an infection went away when it actually didn’t. You can’t know your STD status without getting tested, and you can’t self-diagnose an STD based on symptoms and then assume the infection went away when symptoms subside. Getting tested can uncover a problem and clear the way for treatment.

Nonetheless, people want to know if an STD can go away by itself — but there aren’t many studies on the “natural history” of curable STDs like gonorrhea, chlamydia, and trichomoniasis. Studying the natural course of a curable infection would require that scientists put their subjects at risk of the dangers of long-term infection, and no ethics board would approve such an experiment. Continue reading

STD Awareness: Mycoplasma genitalium

“I’m not small, I’m just streamlined!” Image of Mycoplasma genitalium adapted from American Society for Microbiology.

In November and December of last year, headlines touting a “new” STD made an ever-so-minor flurry across the Internet. CNN referred to it as “mycoplasma genitalium, or MG” — Mycoplasma genitalium is the name of the teardrop-shaped bacteria that can cause several diseases in the urinary or reproductive tracts, such as urethritis and pelvic inflammatory disease.

M. genitalium is the smallest living organism known to science, having “devolved” from more complex organisms — but that doesn’t mean it can’t pack a punch! While these bacteria have surely been around for millennia, we only discovered them in the 1980s. Since then, we’ve known that M. genitalium fits the profile of a sexually transmitted pathogen — the only reason it made the news last year was that a team of British researchers published further evidence that this bug is indeed sexually transmitted and capable of causing disease.


Genital mycoplasmas can be cured — but a doctor needs to know what she’s looking for in order to prescribe the correct antibiotic!


An infection with M. genitalium could more generally be called a “genital mycoplasma.” The term “genital mycoplasmas” refers to a category of several different species of sexually transmitted bacteria, most notably Mycoplasma genitalium, but also less common species, such as Mycoplasma hominis, Ureaplasma urealyticum, and Ureaplasma parvum. M. genitalium is considered an “emerging pathogen,” because it is only over the past couple of decades that technology has allowed us to study these bacteria, along with other genital mycoplasmas.

Risk factors for infection include multiple sexual partners and not using condoms during sex. It is thought that most people with an M. genitalium infection don’t have immediate symptoms — 94 percent of infected men and 56 percent of infected women won’t notice anything amiss. That doesn’t mean it can’t do damage. Continue reading

Let’s Talk Contraception: Dispelling Myths About Emergency Contraception

EmergencyContraceptionSince 1998, when the Food and Drug Administration first approved the morning-after pill, there have been controversies about its sale and use. Initially, age restrictions were enforced to regulate its sale, and some hospitals and pharmacies refused to provide it to their patients. After considerable pressure from public and medical groups, emergency contraception (EC) is available for sale to anyone at their local pharmacy, with the exception of ella and the copper IUD, both of which require prescriptions.


Emergency contraception is widely available, easy to use, and safe!


And yet, after almost 20 years of remarkably safe use, there are still myths regarding its safety, actions and use. Let’s look at some of those myths right now!

First, there are misunderstandings regarding EC’s availability:

Myth: EC is hard to get and you need a prescription.

Since 2013, most ECs are available to buy in pharmacies over the counter to anyone, regardless of age or gender. There are two exceptions: If you need ella, another morning-after pill, you do need a prescription, and the copper IUD requires placement by a health care provider.

Myth: There is only one type of EC available.

There are several different pills available, such as Plan B One-Step or generic equivalents. These all contain levonorgestrol, a progesterone hormone that is also in many other contraceptives. Ella contains ulipristal acetate and works effectively and evenly up to five days after unprotected sex. Ella is dispensed with a prescription. The copper IUD also needs a prescription but is the most effective EC when placed within five days of unprotected sex. It is recommended for obese women or women who have had several episodes of unprotected sex, and its contraceptive effect lasts 10 years. Continue reading

Is Douching Safe?

This vintage douche ad claims that its product is “safe to delicate tissues” and “non-poisonous.”

Douching is the practice of squirting a liquid, called a douche, into the vagina. Many people believe it helps keep the vagina clean and odor-free, and some are under the impression that it helps prevent pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases. An estimated 25 percent of American women 15 to 44 years old douche regularly. But just because douching is widespread doesn’t mean it’s safe; indeed, there are two possible mechanisms by which douching might be harmful.

First, douching might alter the pH of the vagina, changing its ecosystem. You might not think of a vagina as an “ecosystem,” but the bacteria and other microscopic organisms that live there sure do — and altering their habitat can harm the beneficial microbes that live there, opening the door for disease-causing microbes to take over the territory. Frequent douching can result in the vagina’s normal microbial population having difficulty reestablishing its population.


Douching increases risk for infections and fertility problems, and has no proven medical benefits.


Second, a douche’s upward flow might give pathogens a “free ride” into the depths of the reproductive tract, granting them access to areas that might have been difficult for them to reach otherwise. In this manner, an infection might spread from the lower reproductive tract to the upper reproductive tract. Douching might be an even bigger risk for female adolescents, whose reproductive anatomy is not fully formed, leaving them more vulnerable to pathogens.

While douching is not guaranteed to harm you, there is no evidence that it is beneficial in any way. Establishing causation between douching and the problems that are associated with it is trickier — does douching cause these problems, or do people who douche also tend to engage in other behaviors that increase risk? So far, the best evidence indicates that douching is correlated with a number of diseases and other problems, including sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), bacterial vaginosis, pelvic inflammatory disease, fertility and pregnancy complications, and more. Continue reading