Some newspapers opt not to run 'Doonesbury' abortion series
Popular comic strip, which tackles Texas' new ultrasound law, will temporarily be moved from the comic pages to the news pages of The Seattle Times
Seattle Times health reporter
It's not as if "Doonesbury," the comic strip, hasn't tackled controversial subjects before.
Still, the series just released, which features a woman seeking an abortion being forced to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound procedure — a reference to a new law in Texas — has caused unease among some newspaper editors around the country.
Those who have rejected the strip say its graphic language and imagery could offend readers. For example: one strip calls the vaginal device a "10 inch shaming wand" and refers to the compulsory procedure as "rape."
The syndicate that distributes Doonesbury said it will offer substitute comic strips to papers that don't want to run the series.
"We've heard from a handful of papers that are uncomfortable with running the series and want substitutes," said Sue Roush, managing editor at the Universal UClick syndicate.
The Seattle Times will run the strip in the national news section, rather than with other comics, said Executive Editor David Boardman.
Boardman said the decision required much discussion, as well as research to verify that cartoonist Garry Trudeau's take on the Texas law was essentially accurate.
"Trudeau's stock in trade is commentary on the issues of the day, and this is certainly one," Boardman said. "But because we are concerned about these strips reaching the right audience, and in particular about giving parents a good option to keep them from their children if they wish, we are moving Doonesbury to Page A2 for this week."
At The Oregonian, Editor Peter Bhatia said he generally opposes pulling comic strips because "comics are comics and they do not rise to the importance of the pressing issues of the day."
Although Doonesbury is a special strip, often filled with political satire, "I've long felt that was within bounds," he added.
In this case, though, "the graphic nature of the strips went too far, in our judgment." Bhatia said the newspaper will not run the strips but will direct readers to an online link where they can read the strips and comment.
The Texas law, championed by Gov. Rick Perry, was passed in 2011 but just put into place last month after court challenges. It requires women seeking an abortion to get an ultrasound — not specifically a transvaginal ultrasound, in which a wand is inserted into the vagina.
But in most cases, a vaginal probe would be necessary, providers say, to meet the law's requirements that the doctor show a woman an image of the fetus, describe its features and make the fetal heartbeat audible.
An abdominal ultrasound, in which a wand is rubbed over a woman's belly, wouldn't give that information during the first trimester, when most abortions occur, providers note.
In August, U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks stopped the Texas law, saying it required doctors to "advance an ideological agenda" regardless of medical need.
But the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed him in January, sending the case back.
Unwillingly, Sparks set the law in motion last month. The appellate court, he wrote, had made "puppets out of doctors."
"There can be little doubt that [the law] is an attempt by the Texas Legislature to discourage women from exercising their constitutional rights by making it more difficult for caring and competent physicians to perform abortions," Sparks wrote.
A similar law is up for a vote this week in Idaho, said Sara Kiesler, spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Votes Northwest. It would require an ultrasound, but not force the woman to view it.
"The purpose of these bills is to shame and demean women who are seeking abortions," Kiesler said. Forcing doctors to use ultrasounds for political purposes, she said, "is the absolute definition of government intrusion."
Dan Kennedy, CEO of Human Life of Washington, said he thought the controversy was "rather bogus."
"I don't know anyone who has had surgery who hasn't had a CT scan or an ultrasound," he said, and noted that abortions, too, can be invasive procedures.
Women have a right to the information, he added. "Hiding information from them is not exactly informing the patient."
The test, Kennedy said, "reminds people that the child in the womb should be treated as a patient, not as a disease."
In Washington, one of the first states in the nation to legalize abortion, all efforts to create restrictions have failed, he acknowledged.
About 20 states have some sort of law on the books regarding ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health. Another 11 have laws pending.
In Virginia, language requiring women seeking abortions to undergo transvaginal ultrasound was withdrawn by the House of Delegates after protests by abortion-rights advocates, who called the law "state-sanctioned rape."
A transvaginal ultrasound is the standard of care for a first-trimester abortion in order to check the age of the fetus, among other things, said Dr. Deb Oyer of Aurora Medical Services in Seattle.
But, she noted, she always seeks permission.
"There is no other field of medicine where legislators with no medical training sit around and tell providers how to do their job," Oyer said.
Material from Times wire services was used in this report. Carol M. Ostrom: 206-464-2249 or email@example.com.