Last fall, the Alternatives Pregnancy Center in Denver got a $36,000 piece of equipment that some say is the latest, and arguably most effective, tool in combating abortions.
Maureen Yockey, the executive director, says the ultrasound machine empowers women by helping them make informed decisions about their body.
“God made women to nurture and protect children,” she said. “Sometimes the picture from an ultrasound will give them the courage to choose to protect life.”
That’s what Focus on the Family is hoping will ultimately happen.
The Colorado Springs-based evangelical Christian group has budgeted $4.2 million this year to place ultrasound equipment in 150 pregnancy crisis centers. The long-term goal for Operation Ultrasound is to by 2010 place another 650 machines in centers that counsel women on alternatives to abortion, according to Julie Parton, director of the Pregnancy Resource Ministry for Focus on the Family.
Critics charge the program is an attempt by conservatives to manipulate women and push an agenda to eliminate legal abortions.
Consider this from Crystal Clinkenbeard, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains, which offers abortion services:
“I didn’t see anything on their Web site that said they handed women a picture of the ultrasound without trying to fulfill their goal of dissuading women from having an abortion,” she said after looking at the Focus on the Family Internet site touting the ultrasound program.
Places like the Alternatives Pregnancy Center won’t stop a woman from leaving the center to have an abortion, but Yockey said they certainly don’t recommend locations where abortions are performed, either.
“It’s not like it’s a big secret where they are,” she said.
Ultrasound has been around for decades, with professor Ian Donald of Scotland developing its practical applications in the 1950s.
It is commonly used for viewing the embryo during pregnancies, but at between $150 and $500 per exam, it can be cost-prohibitive.
State Rep. David Schultheis, R-Colorado Springs, has tried three times to get legislation passed that would make ultrasounds mandatory for anyone considering an abortion while more than 12 weeks pregnant. The bill has died in committee each time.
“I think it shows there is very little difference between a baby on the outside and one on the inside,” bill co-sponsor Rep. Greg Brophy, R-Wray, said. “When people realize that, they are less likely to terminate the pregnancy.”
However, that wasn’t the case with Carly Febrey, a 27-year-old college student.
When she found out she was six weeks pregnant last summer, Febrey was sure she would have an abortion.
“We’re incredibly poor, and it was the wrong time in our lives to be raising the child,” she said. “It’s a personal tragedy.”
When she made an appointment at a local abortion clinic – there are nine listed in Colorado by the National Abortion Federation – she was given an ultrasound. Febrey was asked if she wanted to see it.
“I think the nurse was surprised when I said ‘yes,’ ” Febrey recalled. “I remember I could see something, but it wasn’t recognizable, and there wasn’t a pair of eyes looking back at me. I think that could be traumatic in a late-term abortion. This was essentially like seeing a coffee bean.”
Ultrasound technology is simply another skirmish in a war that only progresses – or regresses – in court battles, said Randall Lake, an associate professor of communications at the University of Southern California who has watched the abortion debate over the years.
While Focus on the Family is free to provide pregnancy crisis centers with ultrasound equipment, Lake said the battle line won’t move until lawmakers succeed in making ultrasounds mandatory.
“That would certainly be litigated,” Lake said.
Sides differ on effectiveness
As for the effectiveness of ultrasounds actually changing the minds of those considering abortions, the evidence is sketchy and fraught with caveats.
Focus on the Family statisticians say through counseling alone, 57 percent of women decide not to have an abortion. When the ultrasound image is added to the mix, that number jumps to 79 percent.
According to a survey published in Massachusetts News, a pregnancy crisis center in Boston claimed 77 percent of women chose not to have the abortion – up from around 50 percent who only received counseling without viewing an ultrasound image.
But most surveys are done through the very centers that are actively trying to stop women from having abortions, according to Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation – a nonprofit group that represents more than 400 abortion centers around the country.
“I don’t think their statistics are valid or can be trusted,” Saporta said. “They can’t be put in a peer review journal. I think it’s propaganda.”
Saporta also said that most women who come to an abortion clinic have already made up their minds to have the procedure and that “an ultrasound image isn’t going to dissuade them” from following through with their choice.
“Women are intelligent,” Saporta said. “They know they’re pregnant, and the image they see – especially that early in the pregnancy – doesn’t look like that ultrasound image you’re seeing on the cover of Time magazine.” She was referring to the issue with a grainy black and white image of a fetus deep into the pregnancy.
But Lisa Vorhees said the ultrasound was “the single biggest influence” in her decision to not abort three years ago.
The 39-year-old said she had already planned to have an abortion – in fact had already made an appointment at a Planned Parenthood center in Denver – when a friend asked her to go to the Alternative Pregnancy Center.
An appointment was set up for her to get an ultrasound, and what Vorhees saw stunned her. She was pregnant with twins.
“All we could see was two little round sacks,” she said. “I was thinking before I saw it that I have this life in me, but was I willing to turn my life upside down for it? At first, I wasn’t. It was one of the biggest, hardest decisions I ever had to make in my life but, yes, the ultrasound was the biggest decider for me.”
Vorhees said she remains supportive of legal abortions.
“I believe everyone should have the right to make that choice,” Vorhees said.
According to the National Abortion Federation, 1.3 million women make the choice each year to abort. And Clinkenbeard said the six Planned Parenthood sites in Colorado did about 7,900 abortions in 2004. Clinkenbeard said each woman who gets an abortion receives an ultrasound beforehand, but the option to view the image is up to each woman.
She said most choose not to view it.
“It’s very few – less than a quarter,” she said. “And the ones that do as far as changing their mind? Very, very few.”