“Doonesbury” Takes on Ultrasound Laws

Image courtesy Universal Uclick

Over the past forty years, Garry Trudeau’s Pulitzer Prize-winning comic strip “Doonesbury” has tackled its fair share of controversial topics. But this week marks the first time that Trudeau will address abortion, and as a result newspaper editors across the country are refusing the run the six-day series.

The series will focus on mandatory ultrasounds, such as the ones in Virginia and Texas that have drawn national scrutiny in recent weeks. “I chose the topic of compulsory sonograms because it was in the news and because of its relevance to the broader battle over women’s health currently being waged in several states,” Trudeau said in a recent interview. “For some reason, the GOP has chosen 2012 to re-litigate reproductive freedom, an issue that was resolved decades ago. Why [Rick] Santorum, [Rush] Limbaugh et al. thought this would be a good time to declare war on half the electorate, I cannot say. But to ignore it would have been comedy malpractice.”

In 1985, Trudeau created a Doonesbury series that dealt with the anti-choice film The Silent Scream. But, as Trudeau explains in the same interview, the president of the company that syndicated Doonesbury “felt that it would be deeply harmful to the feature, and that we would lose clients permanently. They had supported me through so much for so long, I felt obliged to go with their call.” That series was never given wide release in newspapers.

The objections to this week’s series, however, are all coming from newspaper editors. Portland’s The Oregonian ran a letter to their readers stating that Trudeau, “in our judgment, went over the line of good taste and humor in penning a series on abortion using graphic language and images inappropriate for a comics page.” The Gainesville Sun and Ocala Star-Banner are among other papers that are refusing to run the strip outright; other newspapers, including The Kansas City Star and The Los Angeles Times, are running the strip on their op-ed pages (where many papers routinely place the comic). As David Averill, the editorial page editor for the Tulsa World, said in explaining his paper’s decision, “We run ‘Doonesbury’ on our op-ed page, and this series is an example of why … Many of our readers will disagree with the political stance the series takes, and some will be offended by the clinical language. I believe, however, that this series of strips is appropriate to the abortion debate and appropriate to our op-ed pages.”

Without seeing the entire series, it’s hard to know whether the editors that are pulling the strip have a valid reason to do so. But such censorship seems particularly odd when you consider that Trudeau is addressing laws that are actually being enacted in this country – he’s not making them up, though he may have coined the phrase “shaming wand” to refer to the transvaginal ultrasound probe. If readers disagree with or are offended by what he’s saying, then perhaps the bigger issue lies with the laws themselves. After all, if it’s so offensive to see this language in a newspaper, how much more offensive must it be for a doctor to be forced to read something similar to a patient? And how much more offensive must it be for the woman that is forced to hear it? These are political decisions that intrude on the doctor-patient relationship and on the ability of a woman to freely choose a legal health service; they deserve to be held up to every kind of scrutiny, including in “Doonesbury.” As Garry Trudeau put it, “This is happening in statehouses across the country … It’s lunacy, and lunacy, of course, is in my wheelhouse.”

About Sarah:
Sarah's first book, Generation Roe: Inside the Future of the Pro-Choice Movement, will be out March 2013. For more information, follow her on Twitter @saraherdreich, or check out saraherdreich.com.


  1. George Richter says:

    Mr. Trudeau March 17, 2012
    In the early stages of pregnancy when the fetus is very small it is many times difficult, if not impossible, to obtain a proper ultrasound image with the transabdominal probe alone. Thus, the medical standard of practice in this area generally requires the use of the transvaginal probe up to eleven weeks gestational age in order to make a proper medical diagnosis. An important fact to note is that the use of the transvaginal probe must always be consensual. If a patient refuses to allow it then the doctor must use the abdominal probe and do the best that he or she can in making a proper diagnosis of pregnancy.
    It is clear why proponents of abortion and the abortion industry oppose the passage of ultrasound laws, such as the recent bill passed in Virginia. As ultrasound imaging to mothers considering abortion becomes more available fewer such women choose abortion. The stark reality of this to an annual multi-million dollar abortion industry is that when a mother chooses life, as opposed to abortion, an abortion clinic loses revenue. Thus, the industry is desperate to stop the passage of such laws.
    In Virginia abortion proponents resorted to a new low in their claims of “state-mandated rape” through the use of ultrasound. They should be ashamed, but undoubtedly are not. By raising the discussion about the merits of such legislation to such an emotional pitch they created a poisonous atmosphere that prevented rational political discourse on the ultrasound proposal. Further, since the use of the transvaginal probe must always be consensual (and proponents of the bill know this) they intentionally made false claims of “rape” in order to attract a sympathetic media. Finally, such tactics not only slandered the noble intent behind the law to provide good reproductive health information to mothers, but also slandered the professional work of physicians across the nation who routinely, as a matter of medical standards, use the transvaginal probe in ultrasound examinations to give mothers the best possible medical information.
    The level of hysteria created in Virginia to oppose ultrasound legislation amounts to the lowest tactic yet from an industry and movement that continues to assert that an abortion is merely the removal of a “blob of pregnancy tissue.” Ultrasound proves them wrong. No wonder they have to resort to low-level tactics of deceit and slander to prevent such laws from being passed.
    Garry, you are very persuasive writing Doonsbury, but you should be TRUTHFUL with what you say in it. You are not known to respect traditional morality, but you do try to keep your integrity. You really owe the public an apology for your recent strip re: transvaginal ‘rape’.
    Dr. George Richter, CMfgE
    Grand Rapids, MN

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