Ultrasound in the context of abortion care has received more attention in recent years as states have passed regulations mandating specific ultrasound procedures. Already 23 states have enacted such laws, requiring abortion providers to perform ultrasounds and/or offer fetal images and heart tone sounds to patients. Additional laws are being introduced across the country, with the most extreme requiring that a doctor explain certain characteristics of the fetus regardless of a woman’s desire for that information.
Abortion opponents support these regulations, expecting that women who view ultrasound images will be more likely to forgo having an abortion. Reproductive rights advocates generally oppose the regulations, citing concerns that they are coercive and interfere with the patient-provider relationship. Both sets of claims assume specific effects of ultrasound viewing on women seeking abortion.
To delve deeper into these claims, ANSIRH conducted a variety of research studies to better understand the use and experience of ultrasound viewing in the abortion care setting.
Ultrasound viewing does not change women's minds about abortion. Furthermore, ultrasound viewing does not have a singular effect on women's emotions. Some women experience positive emotions (like happiness and excitement), some experience negative emotions (like sadness and guilt), and some report not having much of an emotional response at all.
From both a health care and a policy perspective, it is important to understand the role that ultrasound viewing may play in women’s decisions. It is equally important not to overstate its effect above other factors women use to make an abortion decision. However, removing women’s ability to decide whether to have an ultrasound before an abortion and dictating the manner in which the ultrasound is administered is likely to reduce women’s perceptions of decisional control regarding abortion, and thus may have negative psychological and physical health outcomes, impede adjustment, and increase the risk of a negative emotional response in women seeking abortions under such conditions.
Our findings suggest that providers, advocates, and legal experts would be best served by articulating the importance of ultrasound in the abortion care context while simultaneously opposing laws that seek to mobilize images in particular ways to manipulate women’s decision-making. Questions about clinical care practices are best addressed in the medical context, not the legislative arena.
ANSIRH's Ultrasound Viewing in Abortion Care issue brief provides a more in-depth look at our findings. Our publication, Clinical guidelines on ultrasound viewing, released in September 2014, provides tools to facilitate patient-provider conversations and create a context where women’s choices are normalized, their concerns validated, and their feelings addressed.