Study: Viewing an Ultrasound Does Not Dissuade Women From Abortion

A new study measuring the impact of ultrasound on abortion decisions unsurprisingly shows ultrasounds don't change women's minds. It also disproves the myth that abortion providers and pro-choicers are trying to hide the reality of abortion from women.

A new study measuring the impact of ultrasound on abortion decisions unsurprisingly shows ultrasounds don't change women's minds. ChameleonsEye / Shutterstock.com

With various states passing mandatory ultrasounds and crisis pregnancy centers focusing more of their efforts on getting ultrasound machines, it’s important to ask: Do ultrasounds even work the way that anti-choicers claim? The whole justification for mandatory ultrasounds is the claim that women who get them will be so overcome with excitement at seeing the embryo in their uterus that they will leap up and say, “Why didn’t anyone tell me that I was going to have a baby? Well, I’m definitely not getting that abortion now!” Indeed, so sure are anti-choicers that the shock of discovering that there’s an embryo in there will jolt women out of the abortion decision that one anti-choice activist said 90 percent of women seeking abortions change their mind upon seeing the ultrasound.

Pro-choice experts immediately knew that claim was a lie, because, unlike most people out there, we know that abortion providers often already make viewing the ultrasound available to patients, and they aren’t reporting 90 percent of their abortions being cancelled. But, as Katy Waldman at Slate reports, researchers decided to go ahead and do a thorough, scientific examination of the question. Published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology, the study looked at a whopping 15,575 women coming in for abortion. All received an ultrasound and were offered a chance to look at it. Forty-two percent did.

The results are pretty hard to refute: Looking at the ultrasound does not cause a crisis of conscience for women seeking abortion. Of the group that didn’t look, 99 percent went ahead and terminated. But of the group that did look, 98.4 percent terminated. The difference between the groups was less than a percentage point, totaling about 17 women out of over 15,000. More importantly, as Waldman notes, the women who changed their minds came strictly from the group of women who were unsure about their abortions going in. Women who were highly certain they wanted an abortion were not swayed at all by the ultrasound.

There are a lot of important lessons to be learned from this, with the most important being that mandatory ultrasounds are basically useless as a persuasion tool. Not that we can expect anti-choicers to apologize and repeal the laws forcing women to get them. They may say that it’s because they’re trying to give women full information, but in reality it’s just to add more expense and hassle to getting an abortion, so it’s likely the laws will stay. But it will be much harder now for anti-choicers to argue with a straight face that the law is well-meaning.

Another important lesson is that the problem with ultrasounds is not that they are done or that they are shown to women. Many pro-choicers—myself included—believe the doctors should give women the choice to view an ultrasound. In the extremely rare case that changes a mind, then good! Women should not be doing things they don’t want to do. Honestly, I’d be shocked if any pro-choicers disagreed.

Indeed, as this study shows, contrary to what anti-choicers would have you believe, letting women look at ultrasounds if they want is common practice in abortion clinics. Anti-choice activists behind these laws are hoping the existence of this law leads you to believe that abortion doctors are deliberately concealing the facts of pregnancy from their patients, presumably out of some fear that patients won’t get abortions if they know what’s really going on in there. The truth couldn’t be further from the myth. Most abortion providers have no interest in deceiving anyone or performing more abortions than patients demand. (Really, with clinic closures being such a problem, many abortion providers are in danger of having more demand than they can meet.) They are there to make sure the patient has the reproductive health outcomes she wants. If that means she needs more information to make her decision, then most doctors are happy to give it.

The problem with mandatory ultrasounds is the mandatory part. As these results show, no one is really surprised by what’s inside the uterus when getting an abortion. (Or, if they are, it’s often because they’re surprised at how small the embryo is when anti-abortion propaganda led them to believe it would be much bigger.) Looking at an ultrasound can be a very good thing for a patient, if she wants it and if it’s handled responsibly. Mandatory ultrasounds are not only coercive, but the laws around them often make it so they are utterly irresponsible: Done without regard to a patient’s mental health needs, often accompanied by scripts that are as inaccurate as they are shaming, and forced to occur 24 hours or more prior to the abortion, drawing out what is already an expensive experience for many women.

Finally, an important takeaway from all this is, in a way, the most simple. It’s a reminder that women are not stupid. Mandatory ultrasounds are based on the sexist premise that the only reason women choose abortion is that they are simply too dim to know how to make a good decision and need lots and lots of hand-holding, more than you would even give to a small child. At the end of the day, the results of this study were predictable for the very simple reason that, in order for ultrasounds to work the way anti-choicers say they do, they would have to be giving women information they don’t already know. But of course they know what a pregnancy is and what it means. Their knowledge of this is why they’re seeking abortion. It’s not just that over 60 percent of women who get abortions are mothers already. It’s that women live in the world and we know what having a baby means physically, financially, socially, and emotionally. A woman who has an abortion knows that she is foreclosing the possibility of having this baby at this time, and she has, for her own reasons, decided that is for the best. To suggest she doesn’t know what she’s talking about is not only insulting to women, it has no basis whatsoever in the facts. Now we have a study to prove how true that is.