Doonesbury Cartoons Cause Controversy, But for Wrong Reasons

Several newspapers have decided not to run this week’s Doonesbury cartoons, which take aim at laws like the one recently passed in Virginia that require women to have an ultrasound exam before having an abortion. One paper, the Los Angeles Times, is moving this week’s strip to its editorial page.

The strip specifically satirizes Texas’s law:

It portrays a woman who turns up at an abortion clinic in Texas and is told to take a seat in “the shaming room”. A state legislator asks if she has been at the clinic before and, when she says she had been to get contraceptives, he replies: “Do your parents know you’re a slut?”

Later, she says she does not want an intrusive vaginal examination but is told by a nurse: “The male Republicans who run Texas require that all abortion seekers be examined with a 10-inch shaming wand.” The nurse adds: “By the authority invested in me by the GOP base, I thee rape.”

The Dallas Morning News has decided to run this week’s strip because Trudeau’s “take on the Texas law is ‘fair comment.'” 

The refusal by some papers to run the strip out of fear of offending conservatives is itself worthy of satire.

Setting all that aside, though, and turning to a more serious issue, Trudeau’s comparison of the transvaginal probe to rape repeats a troublesome theme that emerged very briefly in Texas, and became the centerpiece of opposition to the Virginia bill last month. When I was reporting a story on the anti-choice movement in Texas last year, several pro-choice activists mentioned to me that the state’s ultrasound law, passed in May 2011, was state-sanctioned rape because it would necessarily require a transvaginal probe, depending on the stage of pregnancy. But the state-sanctioned rape rationale for opposing the requirement didn’t take off until Virginia’s bill contained specific language about transvaginal ultrasounds. (Irin Carmon explored the history, including the role of comedy and pop culture, of the comparison last month.)

In the wake of the uprising against transvaginal probes, though, calling a medical procedure rape, even if the medical procedure is required by the state as part of a scheme intended  to restrict women’s access to abortion and to humiliate them in the process, is highly problematic. Sociologist Carole Joffe wrote in an important piece in Slate last month:

As a sociologist who has long studied and supported the pro-choice movement—and chronicled the rise of its opponents—I am heartened by the rare sight of a partial retreat by anti-abortion forces, and by evidence of new energy among abortion rights supporters. A group of Virginia women has just formed a “Women’s Strike Force”  to defeat anti-abortion politicians. But I have considerable concerns about what calling these ultrasounds “rape” and “unnecessary” will mean for abortion patients and providers. The reality is that most abortion patients do receive an ultrasound to date their pregnancies. Since most abortions take place in the first trimester of pregnancy, many of these ultrasounds are performed with a transvaginal probe, the most effective method for viewing early-stage pregnancies. In the end, whether an ultrasound is performed, and which method is used, reflects either the practice of the abortion provider, the patient’s medical history, or—for a relatively small number of women—an aversion to the transvaginal method. Most of the time, however, the transvaginal ultrasound is a useful and common tool that helps providers perform abortions safely and well.

As Joffe points out, soon after the transvaginal-as-rape meme took flight, “Will abortion clinic staff who perform the ultrasound be seen as ‘rapists,’ as the provider I mentioned earlier worried? This is a possibility not lost on the anti-abortion website LifeNews, which recently ran the headline, ‘If Ultrasound is Rape, Arrest Planned Parenthood Staffers.'”

Trudeau doesn’t get this. He told the Washington Post, of the Texas ultrasound law:

The bill says that in order for a woman to obtain a perfectly legal medical procedure, she is first compelled by law to endure a vaginal probe with a hard, plastic 10-inch wand. The World Health Organization defines rape as “physically forced or otherwise coerced penetration — even if slight — of the vulva or anus, using a penis, other body parts or an object.” You tell me the difference.

Trudeau should read Joffe.

The real issue with the ultrasound bill in Texas is that it was an amendment to a previously existing “right-to-know” law that forces women to listen to misinformation about the consequences of abortion, and that its sponsors believed they were on a spiritual mission to tell women how to make the “right” choice. As I wrote last year:

Another front is in the streets, where Catholic activists have led the way, praying and proselytizing in front of clinics that provide abortions, aiming to persuade patients that not only is abortion contrary to God’s will, but that it will cause them untold harm, from mental health problems to breast cancer, infertility, and even death. While medical evidence says otherwise, such falsehoods have been codified into law in Texas. Its 2003 “right to know” law, never challenged in court, requires doctors to “inform” women seeking abortions of a supposed link between abortion and a higher risk of breast cancer and future infertility, in addition to: “serious psychological effects… including depression, grief, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, regret, suicidal thoughts and behavior, sexual dysfunction, avoidance of emotional attachment, flashbacks, and substance abuse.”

The 2003 right-to-know law was never challenged in court; the ultrasound amendment was, on the basis that interfered in the doctor-patient relationship. It was struck down by a federal district court, but the Fifth Circuit upheld it in January. It’s now the law in Texas, but are women any worse off with it than they were with the 2003 “right-to-know” law? In a way, the “right-to-know” law is more egregious than the ultrasound law, since, as Joffe points out, doctors will perform an ultrasound, even with a transvaginal probe, as part of the regular course of abortion care.

It’s the “informational” part that’s objectionable, because, as Gov. Rick Perry told a group of pastors, the purpose of the ultrasound bill “is that, when presented with all the information, every person can make the right choice, the only choice, life.” And if you are thinking of the “wrong” choice? Texas and other states require doctors to warn women of a list of medically-debunked ills that, I noted recently, “reads like a list of plagues God will rain down on a disobedient people.” 

Trudeau’s satire might work better if he focused on that, rather than repeating the dangerous rape analogy.