Unfriendly persuasion

Observations on abortion

Impatient with waiting for the US Supreme Court to outlaw abortion by overturning Roe v Wade (the 1973 decision that recognised a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy), anti-abortion activists are successfully waging campaigns through state legislatures.

The latest battleground is Florida, where lawmakers have been debating whether a woman intending to have an abortion in the first three months of pregnancy should first undergo a compulsory ultrasound scan of her womb. Florida already requires mandatory ultrasounds before second- and third-trimester abortions.

Those who support a woman's right to choose whether to give birth are appalled by new state laws that apply emotional blackmail to women who are often already in a confused or conflicted mental state. They say that if the intention is to reduce unwanted pregnancies, as is the likely outcome, the funds would be better spent improving sex education and access to contraception.

The "pro-lifers" behind the avalanche of state initiatives believe they have found a novel and effective way of discouraging women from aborting.

One example of how this pressure can work is the case of Katie Phinazee, 19, who told a Florida television station that following an ultrasound she had abandoned her plans for an abortion and, at the same time, her ambition to become a college professor.

"I wasn't completely sure if I was ready to have a baby," she said. "I had an ultrasound when I was six weeks pregnant. . . Once I heard the heartbeat, there was no way I couldn't be a mom."

Although the Florida law was narrowly defeated on 31 April, in the past 12 months similar legislation has taken root in Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Idaho, Georgia, Arkansas, Indiana, Michigan, Utah, Wisconsin and Ohio. Ten other states are considering similar measures.

The Florida proposal is typical. A woman could choose not to receive the mandatory scan results, but she would have to sign a declaration saying she had declined to look at her foetus. A stricter version introduced in the Florida Senate insisted that even if a woman decided not to watch the scan, the doctor must describe out loud to her what is on the screen.

The measure demanded that women pay for the scans, even if they had no intention of looking at the results, and it forbade insurance companies and Medicaid, which pays for health care for poor Americans, from picking up the bill. Ultrasound sccans cost between $50 and $250 (£25-£126).

The proposal also mandated the state to appoint a "guardian ad litem" to teenagers and children who fail to obtain parents' consent for an abortion. It was suspected that legal guardians provided by voluntary "pro-life" charities would press the young women to give birth, rather than abort.

The widespread introduction of compulsory ultrasound laws reflects a new confidence in the "pro-life" movement since last year's US Supreme Court decision outlawing late-term abortions.

The abortion debate in America generally divides along party lines. In Florida, the lower house passed the Ultrasound Bill 70 to 45, with Republicans mostly voting in favour and Democrats mostly against. All three presidential candidates have said they are opposed to overturning Roe v Wade, but John McCain's position is ambiguous.

Nicholas Wapshott’s Keynes Hayek: the Clash That Defined Modern Economics is published by W W Norton (£12.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything