The XX Factor

Paul Ryan’s Bean Story Is Not Universal

Paul Ryan hugs his daughter after last night’s debate.

Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP/GettyImages

Allison, I agree with you that Paul Ryan invoking the experience of a happily expecting couple staring at the ultrasound is incredibly effective political rhetoric to wield against abortion, because it’s an experience that is so widely shared (in real-life, in movies, on TV), to the point of having an iconic status in our culture. But his answer offended me deeply, because he framed his subjective experience not just as a universal one, but also asserted that his feelings should be considered “science” and “reason.” He went beyond waving off the various reactions people have to ultrasounds based on circumstance to accuse them, by implication, of being unreasonable and unable to perceive reality if they have different feelings about their ultrasounds.

What’s notably absent from all the discourse around ultrasounds and abortion: The voices of women who have had an ultrasound before an abortion.

It’s fairly common for women getting abortions to have ultrasounds beforehand to measure age of gestation, and doctors usually are happy to share those images with patients who want to see them, which many patients do. But what that’s like is left completely out of the conversation. Ryan’s bean story was like having a discussion about legalized divorce and remembering how happy you were on your wedding day while quietly excluding divorced people from the conversation.

The experiences of happily expecting parents looking at ultrasounds really can’t be projected meaningfully onto women looking at ultrasounds of pregnancies they intend to abort. Women have a variety of emotional reactions to pre-abortion ultrasounds. Some are sad at imagining what could have been. Some are relieved to find out that the embryo isn’t as big as anti-choice propaganda would lead you to believe. Many have a mix of emotions. The only thing we can really say for certain about women who have ultrasounds before abortions is this: It doesn’t change their minds. Recent in-depth research from Advancing New Standards in Reproductive Health Care about patient attitudes towards pre-abortion ultrasounds turned up much different reactions than Ryan’s to the images. Some patients reported liking seeing the ultrasound, and some found it an unpleasant but useful part of owning their decision.

The reality is that an ultrasound image of a pregnancy is a presentation of possibility, and that’s going to frame and inform a patient’s reaction to it. For people who are looking forward to having a baby, it’s the first glimpse into the future, but for patients who are receiving abortions, it’s the end of that journey. Lumping the two together to pretend that ultrasound viewing is some universal experience is not just dishonest, but also displays a complete ignorance about the women who you are hoping to legislate against.