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.”
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.