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Seeing and Believing: Mandatory Ultrasound and the Path to a Protected Choice

Carol Sanger

Columbia Law School

December 9, 2008

UCLA Law Review, Vol. 56, pp. 351-408, 2008
Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 09-195

Several state legislatures now require that before a woman may consent to an abortion, she must first undergo an ultrasound and be offered the image of her fetus.The justification is that without an ultrasound, her consent will not be fully informed. Such legislation, the latest move in abortion regulation, supposes that a woman who sees the image will be less likely to abort. This Article explores how visual politics has combined with visual technology, and how law has seized upon both in a campaign to encourage women to choose against abortion. While rarely analyzed, the significance of seeing, or what one court has called sensory and contemporaneous observance, in fact appears throughout the law. This Article develops a visuality of law, focusing specially on the treatment of fetal imagery.

Drawing upon medical and ethnographic literature on sonography, this Article situates the regulatory appeal of mandatory ultrasound within a preexisting visual familiarity with the fetus. I argue that while a welcome and rewarding experience in the context of wanted pregnancies, ultrasound becomes pernicious when required by law in connection with abortion. The argument I develop is that not only is an abortion decision itself protected, but so is the deliberative path a woman takes to reach that decision.

Mandatory ultrasound intrudes upon that protected area of decisionmaking in several respects. First, simply by virtue of having an ultrasound, a pregnant woman is promoted into the category of mother and it is against this conscripted status that she must proceed. Second, unlike other compulsory forms of abortion disclosure, the statutes require the woman to use her body to produce the very information intended to dissuade her from pursuing an abortion. The resulting fetal image is intended as a self-evident statement about the meaning of human life.

But characterizing the fetus as a child, as most ultrasound statutes do, is a political description, not a scientific one. It confuses medically informed consent with what I identify as morally informed consent, that realm of personal considerations that are a woman's alone to determine. Imbued with indelible social meaning, the mandatory ultrasound requirement replaces consent with coercion - not about the ultimate decision, but about how a woman chooses to get there.

Number of Pages in PDF File: 59

Keywords: abortion, legislation, constitutional theory, informed consent, visuality and law, ethics, reproductive rights

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Date posted: November 26, 2008 ; Last revised: January 7, 2009

Suggested Citation

Sanger, Carol, Seeing and Believing: Mandatory Ultrasound and the Path to a Protected Choice (December 9, 2008). UCLA Law Review, Vol. 56, pp. 351-408, 2008; Columbia Public Law Research Paper No. 09-195. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1306460

Contact Information

Carol Sanger (Contact Author)
Columbia Law School ( email )
435 West 116th Street
New York, NY 10025
United States
212-854-5478 (Phone)
212-854-7946 (Fax)
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