TN bill would require ultrasound before abortion

9:13 PM, Feb 4, 2013   |    comments
State Sen. Jim Tracy
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By Chas Sisk / The Tennessean

Women in Tennessee soon may have to get an ultrasound before an abortion, under a bill filed in the state legislature.

State Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbyville, has filed a measure that would require women to undergo a "transabdominal ultrasound" and wait at least 24 hours before going forward with an abortion.

Tennessee currently does not require women to have an ultrasound before an abortion, in part because the state Constitution has its own privacy clause. That has so far limited lawmakers' ability to place restrictions on women seeking to end a pregnancy.

For that reason, Tracy's proposal would almost certainly face a court challenge.

But eight other states do have ultrasound requirements, making them another battlefront between people seeking to discourage abortions and those who say ultrasounds violate women's privacy and interfere in their relationships with their doctors.

"They're trying to put more barriers in women's path," said Vicki Saporta, president of the National Abortion Federation, a professional organization of abortion providers. "There is no medical need for any type of ultrasound mandate."

The measure comes as Tracy is ramping up a campaign to take on U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais in 2014. The pro-life Republican physician won a second term last November despite revelations that he urged his former wife to have two abortions.

State Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, has agreed to sponsor the House version.

Senate Bill 632, which Tracy filed on Thursday, would require an ultrasound technician to display an image of the fetus, and it requires ultrasound machines to make any heartbeat audible to the woman. If a woman declines to view the ultrasound image, the technician is required to describe any appendages and internal organs visible.

Women would then have to return to the provider within 72 hours to go forward with an abortion.

"My wife had three babies, and I've had the opportunity to see three ultrasounds," Tracy said. "It's pretty amazing to see the ultrasounds."

But critics say the bill calls for a procedure that could be technically unfeasible. Transabdominal ultrasounds, in which a probe is rubbed across the pregnant woman's belly, often cannot produce an image of a fetus or detect a heartbeat in the first trimester, when the vast majority of abortions take place.

For pregnancies still in their first three months, doctors often use a different procedure, known as a transvaginal ultrasound, to produce images of fetuses and listen for heartbeats. But because transvaginal ultrasounds require internal probes, abortion foes have often stopped short of calling for their use.

If doctors were to perform transabdominal ultrasounds too early in a pregnancy, they would likely produce images that are too blurry to pick out arms, legs or other features, say critics of the bill.

"This is the kind of issue you have when you have non-medical professionals trying to legislate on a medical issue," said Jeff Teague, president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennesssee.

Tennessee courts have ruled against waiting periods for women seeking abortions, and opponents of the measure say the requirement that the ultrasound be performed at least a day before an abortion procedure may serve could as a backdoor wait.

Tracy said he expects such issues to be hashed out as the bill moves through the legislature.

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