Life in View: Is Ultrasound the Pro-Life Equalizer?
Abortion supporters say pro-lifers misuse fetal images, but pro-lifers say they help women make a more informed decision.
At 39 and single, Heather Springman was crushed when she found out she was pregnant. Her first thought was abortion.
But she didn’t get one.
What stopped her?
A sonogram produced by an ultrasound machine showed twin boys. One of them appeared to be standing on his head.
“Seeing them on the screen, it just kind of changed everything,” Springman told the Register in a telephone interview. “You’re just watching them bounce back and forth, kicking each other.”
The twins turned 4 a couple of weeks ago.
The pregnancy wasn’t easy, and she describes the twins as “a handful.”
But she says she’s happy with her decision. “I thank God for them every day,” she said.
She credits ultrasound with helping her make the right decision.
“I think a lot of people are probably like me — they’re on the fence, and when they see that image on the screen, it’s an absolute game changer,” Springman said. “Because it’s real. You can see that heartbeat; you can see that movement on the screen. How do you end that?”
Ultrasound, which uses sound waves to create images, is a flashpoint in the conflict over abortion.
Pro-lifers encourage using it. For instance, the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal order that provides life insurance and other material benefits to members while also promoting Catholic teachings, helps pro-life pregnancy centers buy ultrasound machines.
“Since the program’s inception in 2009, the order has donated $56.3 million for the purchase of 1,695 of these lifesaving machines. Of that total, the Supreme Council has donated $25.6 million, and our councils have donated $30.7 million,” said Alicia Mucha, corporate communications manager for the Knights of Columbus, by email.
Springman got an ultrasound because she went to ThriVe, a pro-life center in St. Louis that provides women with ultrasounds and other services free of charge, after doing a Google search for abortion referral.
A physical condition she had led the sonographer to recommend she get the ultrasound from a pro-life obstetrician-gynecologist with an office at Mercy Hospital, a Catholic medical facility.
The doctor recommended that Springman wait a week before deciding what to do. But she says the ultrasound images immediately persuaded her to continue her pregnancy.
Ultrasound and Abortion
As a medical diagnostic tool, ultrasound is uncontroversial. It has been used since the 1950s to show womb images of an unborn child.
The pictures help medical staff determine if a developing life is within the uterus; if it’s not, the pregnancy may be life-threatening for the woman. It also enables health staff to measure a developing unborn child, which helps determine how far along the pregnancy is, and lets them see the baby’s position in the womb, which helps determine whether intervention is needed.
But in certain circumstances, ultrasound triggers abortion supporters. A Doritos Super Bowl ad in 2016 that depicted ultrasound images of a late-trimester child bolting for the birth canal to try to get a chip drew criticism from NARAL Pro-Choice America, which said the ad used an “anti-choice tactic of humanizing fetuses.”
In Minnesota, where state legislators last month passed a measure that stops state funding for pro-life pregnancy centers, a compromise bill that didn’t end up passing sought to offer pregnancy centers a way to keep their public grants under certain conditions, including that they “not require a person to receive an ultrasound.” The bill mentions the word “ultrasound” seven times.
The Register contacted a sponsor of the bill to ask why, but did not receive a response by deadline.
A 2021 report critical of pro-life pregnancy-resource centers suggests that pro-lifers “weaponized” ultrasounds. “Anti-abortion organizations steering the [pregnancy center] movement promote the use of ultrasound technology as a tool to persuade clients to carry their pregnancies to term and falsely signal medical legitimacy,” states the report, “Designed to Deceive: A Study of the Crisis Pregnancy Center Industry in Nine States,” published by a Minnesota organization called Gender Justice, which supports legal abortion.
In line with other abortion supporters, the authors of the report condemn what they call “medically unnecessary” ultrasounds.
Such arguments bother ThriVe’s president, Bridget VanMeans.
Ultrasound is state-of-the-art medical care for a pregnant woman, who needs and deserves the information an ultrasound offers, VanMeans said. “It’s medically excellent for her to have an ultrasound,” VanMeans told the Register.
“They [abortion supporters] don’t want informed consent — which is what an ultrasound is — because if they’re truly informed, most women are not going to go through with the procedure.”
Change Their Minds and Hearts
The two sides disagree.
Some pro-lifers estimate as many as 80% of abortion-minded women who see an ultrasound image of their womb do not go through with an abortion.
The Gender Justice report condemns pro-lifers’ use of ultrasounds and also argues that it doesn’t work. Citing two studies, the report states: “Ultrasound viewing does not change women’s minds about abortion.”
Pro-lifers say it does — and at surprisingly early points in a pregnancy.
A nurse at ThriVe told the Register by email that she has done ultrasounds at 5 weeks 4 days after the first day of a pregnant woman’s last menstrual period that show a visible heartbeat in the embryo.
Belinda Donovan, nurse manager at Care Net, a pro-life pregnancy-resource center in New London, Connecticut, told the Register she often provides patients with a three-second video clip of ultrasounds at about 6 weeks so they can see the movement of the heartbeat.
It’s not long after that that a developing unborn child begins to look like a recognizable baby.
“Usually about eight weeks you can see arm buds and leg buds,” said Donovan, a registered nurse who is trained to give limited obstetrics ultrasounds, in a telephone interview. “The fight used to be over whether it was just a glob of tissue. Well, now everyone knows it’s not a glob of tissue. Now they know that it’s a baby. You can see it moving around, and you can tell definitely it’s a baby.”
Care Net does not force women to look at ultrasound images, said Lisa Maloney, the center’s executive director. “Everything we do is what we call permission-based care. We do not share anything with them unless they have given us permission to do so. And that includes ultrasound. We don’t believe any woman should be forced into anything,” Maloney said.
While a handful decline, the vast majority of women who come to Care Net opt to see the ultrasound images, even if they’re planning to have an abortion.
The reaction is intense.
“Every time that I do the ultrasound, if the woman looks at it, or if the woman and the partner look at it, there is some connection,” said Donovan, who estimates the center does more than 100 ultrasounds a year. “There are tears and tears and tears.”
That’s because it’s personal, say pregnancy center officials.
“They’re not just watching a picture of a baby; they’re watching a picture of their baby,” said Jor-El Godsey, president of Heartbeat International, headquartered in Columbus, Ohio, which serves a network of about 3,300 pro-life pregnancy-resource centers, including about 2,000 in the United States. “That’s the power of ultrasound.”
Lisa Searle, a nurse manager for Heartbeat International who used to perform ultrasounds frequently and now trains others to do them, told the Register that offering medical images while also listening to a pregnant woman’s cares and concerns makes for an effective combination.
“I think it makes a huge impact to show her her baby,” Searle said. “But I also think that with that ultrasound, she needs love. We need to love her.”
Rich in Pictures
In 2013, Kyla Grimes got pregnant. She was 19 and hardly knew the father. He gave her some money for an abortion. She made an appointment at Planned Parenthood in St. Louis. The amount was enough for the blood work appointment, but not for the abortion a week later.
“Luckily, I didn’t have enough money to go through with the second appointment, and that’s how I ended up at ThriVe. They showed me an ultrasound. Seeing her on an ultrasound was like a breath of fresh air for me,” Grimes said of her little girl. “Everything changed immediately. … It wasn’t a little blob. It wasn’t a little dot. It was a baby.”
After Grimes gave birth, ThriVe helped her with counseling and practical baby products, free of charge.
Before seeing the images, she said, “I was in denial. I didn’t even think what was inside me was a real person. The ultrasound added life to it.”
Grimes’ daughter is now 10.
“I think the ultrasound makes the decision,” Grimes said, “because if I had not seen the ultrasound, my daughter would not be here.”
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