The anti-abortion movement has enacted a litany of different laws with the explicit purpose of shaming, scaring, or inconveniencing women out of terminating unwanted pregnancies. Among these is the forced ultrasound viewing: a law requiring providers to show each patient an ultrasound before performing an abortion. In some states with particularly harsh mandates, the doctor must make a woman listen to the embryo’s cardiac activity — often incorrectly described as a heartbeat — and narrate a detailed description of the ultrasound, even if she objects.
On Monday, the Supreme Court allowed Kentucky’s forced-ultrasound law to stand, meaning it will join three other states (Louisiana, Texas, and Wisconsin) that require medical providers to display and describe an ultrasound before performing an abortion, a medically unnecessary procedure specifically intended to humanize the embryo and shame the woman seeking abortion care.
What is it like to go through this? We spoke to Jen Ferris, a 41-year-old reproductive-rights advocate living in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, who was forced to have an ultrasound before an abortion when she was 19 years old, about her experience. (This interview has been edited and condensed.)
I had an abortion when I was 19 and living in South Florida. I had a very pragmatic response to finding out I was pregnant. My grandma had my mom at 15, my mom had me at 21; from the time I understood what reproduction was, I knew that wasn’t my path. I made my appointment for like three days later. There was no feelings of guilt or loss. I didn’t feel a deep need to confess to anybody — I just needed to not be 19 and pregnant. Maybe because I was young, but I just had this illusion of trust in the process. It was a little bit to me, in my teenager head, like getting your filling filled. I remember there were protesters outside the clinic. It sucked, but at the same time, I was more concerned about the process and what it would feel like. I didn’t really feel any sense of the political until many years later, even though the political was right in my face.
At the clinic, they immediately separated me from my boyfriend and made me watch a video by myself on what abortion was about. They gave me a couple of opportunities to say I didn’t want it; for example, they asked me if I was being coerced. I remember thinking, I really wish my boyfriend were here sitting with me. Then they had me change into a hospital gown and took me into this holding area for all the women having abortions that day. We were all sitting there on bench seats, wearing socks and hospital gowns. I just wanted to have my abortion. They left us in that room for four hours.
Finally it was my turn. They brought me back into this darkened room and said, “We cannot give you your pain medicine until we’ve done this other stuff.” And then they performed an ultrasound. For me, it was an external ultrasound; I lay there and they took the ultrasound wand and rubbed it across my belly. I had no idea why any of this was happening. I was trying not to look at the ultrasound, and the practitioner said to me, “Ma’am, you’re going to have to look at this and we’re going to have to turn the volume up on it.” I remember feeling so annoyed and dismayed. I was almost having an out-of-body experience — watching myself to see what I would do with this information.
I remember the room was dark so you could see the screen, and there was this thud of the heartbeat going through the air, and two or three people in the room all kind of looking at me expectantly. I just wanted them to turn the volume down because it was so loud. The thought in my head was, If they don’t want to perform an abortion so bad, why are they doing this? Nobody told me that this was state-mandated. I felt like, Wow, I am being outright shamed here. And because of the cultural narrative about what abortion is or should be, I just took it on the chin as a natural part of getting an abortion. I was like, Oh, okay, well, here’s the shame part.
The narration of the ultrasound is a requirement. They showed me the head, they showed me the feet. I remember thinking, Oh God, if they show me the sex, I’m gonna flip — I didn’t know you couldn’t see the sex at that time. They use a mouse to kind of draw a line that measures the line of the length of the fetus. But I remember it was mostly about the heart. This was not information I was expecting or seeking that day. None of the things I had prepared myself for involved being in a room full of strangers, separated from my boyfriend, hearing this heartbeat and having three sets of eyes staring at me, waiting for my reaction to this news that there was a healthy, functioning pregnancy in me. Of course there was — that’s why I was there.
I just felt a deep sense of confusion. I didn’t understand why this was happening or why the pain medicine was dependent on this; I blamed myself for asking for the pain medicine. It felt so personal. I felt like they were like: Are you sure? Are you sure? Have you seen this baby? Have you heard this heartbeat? I never doubted it, but I remember thinking, God, they’re gonna judge me for this because I just said, Yep. And then I turned away again. Because I knew it was the right decision. I felt shamed but not ashamed; I just felt like these people clearly want me to feel a certain way, and I’m not feeling that certain way. Maybe I’m a monster.
Years later, when I became pregnant very happily with my first son, I hadn’t thought about my abortion since the day it happened. It had just kind of left my head. And I was in the room getting my first ultrasound at six weeks, and it all came back to me in a huge way. My adult self who now wanted to be pregnant had this retroactive shame. I kept thinking, Well, what if this pregnancy doesn’t go well and I wasted my good one? All of these kinds of rotten-thinking thoughts got into my head, all kind of evoked by this new ultrasound because I, of course, as we do, related it back to the other time I’ve been in this unfamiliar environment — this darkened room, the sound of the heartbeat.
When I was in that darkened procedure room waiting for my abortion, the state was in there with me as well. And I didn’t know it, and I didn’t give my consent. I was just a young woman thinking I was going through something straightforward, not realizing I was part of this kind of convoluted political theater. And I didn’t realize it until a decade later.