Texas sonogram law has some patients unhappy

The Fort Worth Star-TelegramFebruary 29, 2012 

FORT WORTH — Women seeking abortions at Whole Woman's Health in south Fort Worth often arrive upset or angry about Texas's new sonogram law, which began being fully enforced three weeks ago, a health center official says.

Some are unhappy about the requirement that the physician verbally describes the fetus during a sonogram. But it's the hardship of having to schedule two appointments — one for the sonogram and another for the surgery no fewer than 24 hours later — that draws the most consistent ire.

For many women, that means unnecessarily missing two days of work, paying for two days of child care or arranging extra transportation, all frequent challenges for clients of the Fort Worth center because it serves some rural clients who must travel farther, said Amy Hagstrom Miller, CEO of Woman's Health.

"What we have noticed primarily is absolute outrage that they have to come twice," Hagstrom Miller said "Many of our clients are already mothers; they know what is on a sonogram. They don't see it and say 'Oh my Gosh, I'm pregnant' and change their minds."

Proponents of the law, however, say the delay merely guarantees that women have complete and informed consent before making a permanent, potentially life-altering decision.

"This might add some time to the process," said Becky Visosky, director of communications for the Catholic Pro-Life Committee, the Respect Life Ministry of the Diocese of Dallas. "But it is important information before they undertake a very serious procedure that takes a human life, and that could very well change their lives."

The law, approved during the 2011 legislative session, technically took effect in October. But legal challenges delayed full enforcement until Feb. 7.

Besides the two appointments, the law requires doctors to play the heartbeat audibly, describe the fetus and show women a sonogram image, unless they decline to view it.

A similar proposed law in Virginia set off a firestorm of national debate recently, primarily over the use of invasive transvaginal sonograms. While the Texas law does not require a specific type of sonogram, providers say the transvaginal version will often be necessary early in pregnancies to meet the level of detail required by the law.

Nevertheless, the Texas Department of State Health Services says feedback from providers and women has been mild since it released guidelines for the law last month.

"It has actually been very quiet," spokeswoman Carrie Williams said.

Uncertain impact

Texas abortion providers have reported a range of client reactions to the new law. Some women have looked away or blocked their ears with their fingers when the doctor described the fetus, but many didn't show strong emotions.

Most women find the requirements condescending, said Jenni Beaver, assistant director at Southwestern Women's Surgery Center in Dallas.

"It treats women as if they are stupid and don't know what is in their uterus," she said. "The law just creates hoops and barriers and drives up the cost for the women. And we have not had anyone decide not to have an abortion because of a sonogram."

Supporters of the law agree that there are not yet any known instances of the new law changing a women's mind. But it has only been enforced for three weeks and the true impact won't be known until state abortion statistics are collected after the law took effect, said Joe Pojman, executive director of Texas Alliance of Life.

Abortion providers report procedures to the Texas Department State Health Services Bureau of Vital Statistics. However, the state likely won't make recent data available for awhile - statistics for 2009 are currently the most recent available on the department's website, he said.

In that year, there were almost 75,000 abortions in Texas; 5,678 in Tarrant County.

Pojman said he viewed reports by abortion providers of clients' reactions to the law with a skeptical eye.

"It is impossible to know what is really going on, and I'm not sure I trust those accounts from providers," he said.

Visosky said that before the law, the pro-life committee "saw the power of the sonogram images" when they were shown to women considering abortions at pregnancy resource centers. The committee also places "sidewalk counselors" outside abortion centers.

"We fully expect (the new law) to play into the decision making process," she said.

Scheduling issues

At the Fort Worth center, the biggest problem caused by the law is scheduling complications, Hagstrom Miller said. Finding two days in which the doctor and patient are available for the sonogram and abortion is challenging.

Pojman said that scheduling between doctors and patients for sonograms and abortions should be no more difficult than those for consultations and procedures for any elective surgery.

Hagstrom Miller said a sizeable portion of clients travel to the Fort Worth center from counties west of Tarrant County, she said. The only centers offering abortion in west Texas are in Lubbock and Midland.

The new law includes a provision that women who live more than a 100 miles away from an abortion center can do the sonogram two hours before the abortion. But that still leaves clients who live, for example, 90 miles away making a three-hour round trip twice, she said.

That exemption for rural areas has created additional confusion because the law did not clarify whether that distance should be measured by how the crow flies or by driving distance, said Sara Cleveland, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas.

Delays in abortions caused by scheduling problems can impact the women's health, Beaver said. The further along the pregnancy, the greater the medical risk.

Cleveland called that consequence "a stark reminder that this isn't about the health or the well-being of the women."

To read more, visit www.star-telegram.com.

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