Doonesbury and Rape

Today’s post talks about both rape and abortion. As such, I totally understand anyone who chooses to skip and come back when we’re talking about fart jokes and LEGO kittens.

After much internal debate, I’ve decided I don’t have the time or energy I’d need for reading, reviewing, and moderating all of the comments on this one, so for what I believe is the first time in my blogging history, comments are closed.

Doonesbury has been running a series of comics this week about a Texas law which:

“…requires women to have a sonogram at least 24 hours ahead of an abortion, and the doctor to play the heartbeat aloud, describe the fetus, and show the woman the image, unless she chooses not to view it. Although the Texas law doesn’t specify what kind of ultrasound — belly or transvaginal — abortion providers say they almost always must use the transvaginal probe to pick up the heartbeat and describe the fetus at the early stage of pregnancy when most women seek abortions.”

-From an article in the Texas Tribune, which includes an image of a transvaginal ultrasound tool

Today’s strip (which our local paper, the Lansing State Journal, has chosen not to run) calls this rape.

As most of you know, I have a serious problem with people throwing the word “rape” around too lightly. When I wrote about Amazon changing the price of my e-books, someone linked to my article saying, “Amazon price-raped Jim C. Hines!”


In this case … well the FBI released a long-overdue update to their definition of rape, which is now defined as “penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.”

The trasnvaginal ultrasound certainly meets the penetration part of the definition. But what about consent?

One answer is that nobody’s forcing anyone to have an abortion, and a woman can refuse the ultrasound and simply choose not to have an abortion. This is true.

And medical procedures often require intrusive acts. If I go in for surgery, I’ll probably have a tube thrust down my throat, and possibly a catheter jammed up into my bladder. Not pleasant, and not something I’d normally want … but these are medically necessary parts of the surgery.

But what if it’s not medically necessary? Say you go to your doctor for a knee replacement. Your doctor says he can help you, but first you have to let him stick a plastic wand into your anus. You might say yes because you need the surgery … but is that consent? Is it consent when one party has power over the other, and is holding hostage a legal procedure the second party wants/needs?

Consent given under duress is not consent.

The argument I’ve seen put forth is that an ultrasound is necessary in order for the woman to give fully informed consent to the abortion procedure, and that women must have “access to all of the facts” before making their choice.

I’m all for informed decisions. My wife had multiple X-rays and MRIs before her knee and hip surgeries, because she and the doctor needed to know how bad things had gotten in order to weigh the risks and decide how best to proceed.

Listening to a fetal heartbeat is an emotionally powerful thing. Seeing an ultrasound can be powerful as well. I remember the first ones I saw. They looked like a weather radar on the fritz at first, but then the technician pointed out a foot. It was an intense moment.

But is an ultrasound medically necessary for someone deciding whether or not to have an abortion? Does that ultrasound 24 hours in advance help the doctor to perform a safer procedure? Does it help the woman better assess the risks? Is it information that can’t be conveyed in another, less intrusive way?

Or is it simply an emotional attempt to influence the woman’s choice?

I understand that a lot of people believe influencing that woman’s choice is morally necessary. But I find it highly problematic to claim that “My morals give me the right to shove a plastic wand into your vagina with no medical justification.”

So is it rape? I think that depends on whether or not you believe the ultrasound is medically necessary. I am not convinced that it is. And if there’s no medical reason, but the woman must still allow a doctor to insert that wand into her body before she’s allowed to have a legal medical procedure, then I think I have to agree with Doonesbury’s use of the term.