Ultrasound as Media

“Here’s what a woman in Texas now faces if she seeks an abortion.

“Under a new law that took effect three weeks ago with the strong backing of Gov. Rick Perry, she first must typically endure an ultrasound probe inserted into her vagina. Then she listens to the audio thumping of the fetal heartbeat and watches the fetus on an ultrasound screen.

“She must listen to a doctor explain the body parts and internal organs of the fetus as they’re shown on the monitor. She signs a document saying that she understands all this, and it is placed in her medical files. Finally, she goes home and must wait 24 hours before returning to get the abortion.

“‘It’s state-sanctioned abuse,’ said Dr. Curtis Boyd, a Texas physician who provides abortions. ‘It borders on a definition of rape. Many states describe rape as putting any object into an orifice against a person’s will. Well, that’s what this is. A woman is coerced to do this, just as I’m coerced.'”

In this article from yesterday’s NEW YORK TIMES, Nicholas Kristof describes the invasiveness of the new ultrasound probe procedures required for abortions in Texas. I was struck by how ultrasound functions as media. Other colleagues may already have considered this, especially those looking at pregnancy and childbirth videos (yes, there’s one person I’m eying in particular here). It’s so interesting how this medium, in this form, collapses the distinctions between active and passive for the audience. The audience is obviously intended to be the person carrying the fetus (I hesitate to write mother and child). The content is their own body and the new growth inside it. They are expected to watch, be moved, and make a decision, a presumably active process. However, all of this is done against their will, a corollary to the requested procedure, abortion, and none of it the procedure stemming from their own body is conducted by them, an absolutely passive process. Maybe you actively work against the procedure as it’s going on. Maybe you look away, plug your ears, make snarky comments as the nurse rolls through the steps, hum during the heartbeat. You can certainly show displeasure, register dissent. But the thing is done to you anyway.

How does this play with hypodermic theories of media spectatorship? Or encoding-decoding? What other theories of reception does this impact? Isn’t this the ultimate state-sanctioned medicalization of the viewing process? More insights are welcome.


Postscript: Jonathan Gray posted this piece on “Compulsory Ultrasound Audiences and Feminism” about I week before my post. I didn’t see it then, but it serves as a handy corollary, effectively providing some answers to the questions at the end and open points throughout my own post.


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