Ultrasounds Aren't Required Before Abortion in Missouri, Solicitor General Says


Are women getting abortions in Missouri required by law to get an ultrasound first? On Tuesday, Missouri’s Solicitor General John Sauer said no.

Under questioning, Sauer stated that women seeking an abortion are not actually required to undergo an ultrasound — rather, they're only required to be given the opportunity to have one performed.

The exchange occurred during oral arguments before the Missouri Supreme Court, which is hearing a case that pits the state against the a member of the Satanic Temple who underwent an abortion in 2015.

The plaintiff in the case, referred to in court filings as "Mary Doe," is challenging the state's "informed consent" laws on the basis that they violate her religious beliefs in bodily autonomy, which is one of the tenets of the Satanic Temple. (It's worth noting that the Satanic Temple describes itself as a "non-theistic religious organization" — that is, they don't believe in a literal Satan.)

"When the state turns to her and says, 'Would you like to hear the heartbeat?' They’re preaching from the pulpit," James MacNaughton, the Satanic Temple's attorney, told Riverfront Times in September. "That’s an imposition. It’s not the business of the state to be a preacher."

During Tuesday's hearing, Judge Laura Denver Stith asked the state to clarify whether women are, in fact, forced by law to undergo an ultrasound in order to listen to the fetal heartbeat.

"The best interpretation of that statute," responded Sauer, "is that she is entitled to decline." He later added, "There is no legal requirement that she must pay for the ultrasound."

In his answer to the judge, Sauer cited the "plain language" of the statute in question, which states that a woman seeking an abortion be provided "the opportunity to view at least 72 hours prior to the abortion an active ultrasound of the unborn child and hear the heartbeat of the unborn child if the heartbeat is audible."

According to Doe's legal filing, she received an ultrasound prior to her abortion at the St. Louis branch of Planned Parenthood, even though "no medical purpose was served by compelling Mary Doe to get an ultrasound."

Now, the state suggests, she wasn't actually compelled to do anything. And that might be news to Planned Parenthood. After the hearing, reported Missourinet, MacNaughton wondered, “How does the person at Planned Parenthood, who’s on the ground implementing this stuff, how do they know what the state’s rules are?”

On Wednesday, RFT reached out to Planned Parenthood representatives from both the St. Louis and Great Plains divisions with questions about Sauer's admission in court, asking whether clinic administrators have been working under the assumption that state law requires them to perform ultrasounds prior to abortions. Neither responded by press time.

Still, there could be other legitimate reasons for Planned Parenthood to perform the ultrasounds. During Tuesday's hearing, Sauer told the judges, "It is my understanding that Planned Parenthood does this not because it's required but because they use the ultrasound to ascertain gestational age."

It's not clear when the Missouri Supreme Court will issue its final decision on the case, which has spent the last several years working its way through state and federal courts. (The federal case is currently under review at the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.) If the state Supreme Court rules that Missouri's abortion laws did in fact violate Doe's religious rights, Missouri women could conceivably use the same argument to avoid the the 72-hour waiting period and other restrictions imposed by the legislature.

Meanwhile, the Satanic Temple is touting the solicitor general's admission on Tuesday as a win.

"The state’s interpretation of the law will allow women in Missouri seeking an abortion to do so with a level of dignity not currently available to them,” Satanic Temple spokeswoman Jex Blackmore said in a press release. “Women will no longer be forced to decide whether or not they want to listen to the fetal heartbeat while naked, with their feet in stirrups, and a transvaginal ultrasound wand inside of them.”

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com

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