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

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

SB 1367: Grieving Families Are a Casualty of Arizona’s Latest Attack on Abortion

The following guest post comes to us via Kelley Dupps, public policy manager for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona.

Senate Bill 1367, also known as the “live delivery” or “fetal torture” bill, depending on your worldview, was signed into law on March 31 by Gov. Doug Ducey.

Proponents of SB 1367 framed the bill as one that would give “survivors” of abortion a “chance at life” by requiring abortion providers to be trained in and stock equipment needed for “neonatal resuscitation” to keep the baby alive by any means necessary. Opponents pointed out that the chances of a late abortion resulting in a live delivery are slim to none, and the law would have “cruel consequences for grieving parents.” Families who learn their baby has fatal defects would be denied the chance to hold their newborn for the brief time they have with it, instead forcing doctors to perform heroic measures that could cause extreme suffering. Parents whose babies won’t have more than a few minutes or hours of life deserve to decide for themselves how they will spend that precious time.


Doctors will be bound to a law written by people who don’t understand how medicine is practiced.


SB 1367, an abortion bill that will do nothing more than traumatize patients, was introduced by extremist politicians looking for a fight with Planned Parenthood — although Planned Parenthood Advocates of Arizona intentionally stayed out of the debate. Planned Parenthood Arizona (PPAZ) does not perform late abortions, and we didn’t want deceptive lawmakers to distract the public by turning SB 1367 into a “Planned Parenthood bill,” which would draw focus from more pertinent underlying issues. To be clear: This bill stigmatizes abortion, denies compassion to families facing heartbreaking decisions, and does not impact the services provided by the amazing health care professionals at Planned Parenthood. PPAZ stands in solidarity with patients in need of health care and providers of legal, late abortions.

In the face of science, SB 1367 doubles down on the obscure and morbid aspects of abortion care in hopes of getting closer to the extremists’ coveted abortion ban. SB 1367 would require fetuses delivered at 20-24 weeks to be given “lifesaving” measures, regardless of the clinicians and patients in the room, regardless of the nonexistent instruments made tiny enough to achieve “lifesaving” measures, regardless of the ethics, morality, and humanity around grieving families and the care their specialists provide. Continue reading

Mike Pence’s America

mike-penceSince the election of Donald Trump in November, countless people have reveled in the hope that perhaps some obscure constitutional gambit or criminal indictment would take place preventing him from taking office on January 20.


Mike Pence’s legislative record stands in opposition to his self-proclaimed reverence for life.


The sentiment is understandable to those of us who abhor this man and all that he stands for, but such a scenario would present an awful alternative in the form of Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who would take Trump’s place in the Oval Office as our new president.

While Trump has spoken about his frightening and detestable political views, he has no legislative record to back them up. Former congressman and current Indiana governor, Mike Pence, however, has a lengthy one.

And it is positively horrifying. Continue reading

Movie Night: After Tiller

After Tiller is an award-winning documentary film that takes us inside the lives of the remaining four doctors who were openly providing third-trimester abortions in the United States after the 2009 murder of Dr. George Tiller, a staunch defender and provider of those abortions. The 88-minute film, released in 2013, seeks to shed light, rather than more heat, and move beyond the national shouting match about abortion later in pregnancy.

You can see the trailer here:

Is this film for you? Probably, if you ponder the following:

  1. Why would a pregnant woman wait so late into a pregnancy to decide to have an abortion?
  2. Why would a woman who loves her unborn baby have a late abortion?
  3. After 24 weeks’ gestation, should abortion (always, sometimes, never) be illegal?
  4. What kind of people provide third-trimester abortions?
  5. Do third-trimester abortions differ much from premature, natural childbirth?

Continue reading

Political Posturing: The Federal 20-Week Abortion Ban

U.S. Representative Trent Franks (R-Arizona) of the 8th congressional district speaking at the Arizona Republican Party 2014 election victory party at the Hyatt Regency in Phoenix, Arizona. Photo: Gage Skidmore

U.S. Rep. Trent Franks of Arizona’s 8th congressional district speaking at the Arizona Republican Party 2014 election victory party in Phoenix. Photo: Gage Skidmore

The idea of a 20-week abortion ban is nothing new for the Grand Canyon State. In 2012, the Arizona Legislature enacted a law prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks, except in cases of narrowly defined medical emergencies. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously struck down the law under clear Supreme Court precedent, and the high court itself later declined to hear Arizona’s appeal.

Even though the Supreme Court refused to uphold Arizona’s initial 20-week ban, the issue remained a central policy concern for Arizona politicians. In June 2013, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a similar bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks of gestation. The bill, sponsored by Arizona’s own Rep. Trent Franks, never reached the floor of the Democrat-controlled Senate.


Almost all late-term abortions are due to a life-threatening condition or severe fetal abnormalities.


Yet, despite the outright failure of Arizona politicians to prohibit abortions after 20 weeks, either here in Arizona or at the federal level, they’re back at it again. This year, Rep. Franks successfully spearheaded a bill nearly identical to the one he introduced two years ago. Approved by the House earlier this month, H.R. 36 would severely restrict access to abortion services in the fifth month of pregnancy.

Notably, even Franks’ most recent attack on women’s reproductive rights did not pass the House without controversy; the current edition of H.R. 36 is actually the revised version of a bill introduced in January. A handful of Republicans objected to the original draft because it mandated that women who suffered rape or incest must report all crimes to law enforcement before being eligible to receive a late-term abortion. Continue reading

Movie Night: A Private Matter

Twenty years ago, TV viewers were subjected to what the media watchdog group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) called a “high-profile, long-ranging and costly” anti-choice media campaign. At an estimated final cost of $100 million, the conservative Arthur S. DeMoss Foundation launched a series of television ads from 1992 to 1998 bearing the message, “Life. What a Beautiful Choice.” Featuring images ranging from idyllic family scenes to in-utero fetuses, the ads ran on national networks and local stations alike.


A Private Matter dramatizes a story that changed minds about abortions as it captured headlines.


On the media front, the DeMoss Foundation ads presented a formidable challenge to the pro-choice majority, but more came out of 1992 than these glossed-over vignettes about difficult reproductive choices. That same year, HBO premiered its movie A Private Matter, a dramatization of the true story of Sherri Finkbine, a Phoenix-area woman and local TV celebrity who was known as Miss Sherri on the children’s program Romper Room. Finkbine made national headlines in 1962, when she and her doctor decided she should have an abortion. Finkbine had already given birth to four healthy children, but during her fifth pregnancy she learned that the sleeping pills she had been taking contained thalidomide, a drug that had recently been banned after being linked to severe fetal deformities.

Sherri Finkbine is played by Sissy Spacek, who puts on a convincing and absorbing performance. Spacek is cheerful and charismatic at first, a natural fit for the star of a children’s show, but apprehension takes over one morning when she glances at the front page of the local paper. “U.S. Bans Crippler Drug” is the first headline she sees. At work later, Sherri phones her physician, still sounding hopeful that she didn’t take the pills long enough for its side effects to have done any harm. When her physician, Dr. Werner, calls Sherri and her husband into his office later, she learns otherwise. Dr. Werner shows them photos of the effects of thalidomide and advises them to terminate Sherri’s pregnancy. Trying to ease Sherri’s shock, Dr. Werner assures her that she hasn’t done anything wrong, that it was the drug that made terminating her pregnancy so imperative. Dr. Werner promises to arrange an abortion, even as Sherri is still indecisive. Continue reading