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Nothing funny – or apocalyptic – about pulling comic strip

Fri., March 16, 2012

A woman walks into a clinic.

“Excuse me,” she says. “Is this where I get a sonogram?”

Another woman, in a lab coat and sitting at a computer, says, “Yes, it is, Miss. … Would this be your first pregnancy termination?”

The woman says, “Yes.”

The woman behind the counter says, “Then you’ll need to fill out this form. Please take a seat in the shaming room.”

“In the what?” the woman asks – and we see that the clipboard she has been given bears a scarlet A.

“A middle-aged, male state legislator will be with you in a moment.”

This is what too hot to handle looks like, circa 2012.

That was day one of this past week’s Doonesbury strip. Getting into abortion politics is apparently so scary that lots of newspapers decided to run a week’s worth of old strips or move them to the editorial page.

Here at the S-R, where Doonesbury has already been exiled to the classifieds, the powers that be pulled the strip.

Instead of publishing political satire that would provoke and dismay, engage and enrage, we punted. And everyone, everywhere, read those comics anyway.

Just not here.

A bald, doughy man in a suit and tie walks into a room.

“Young lady?” he says to a young woman seated there. “I’m Sid Patrick. One of the sponsors of the Texas Sonogram bill …”

“Yes?” she asks.

“Would this be your first visit to the center?” he asks.

“No,” the woman replies. “I’ve been using the contraceptive services here for some time.”

“I see,” the man says.

Then he adds, “Do your parents know you’re a slut? Surely they suspect.”

The woman turns, crossly, and shouts, “NURSE!”

Some 60 newspapers declined to run these strips. Like the Spokesman-Review, most expressed some level of concern about the appropriateness of the subject for a comic strip.

The six-day series, written by Garry Trudeau, tracks a woman who goes to get an abortion in Texas and is forced through the rigmarole of “informed consent.” The strip is unflinching and satirically savage. And brilliant.

A woman walks into an office. A doctor begins reading from a prepared statement.

“On behalf of Governor Rick Perry, may I welcome you to your compulsory transvaginal exam. This invasive procedure is mandatory for anyone seeking to end innocent unborn life in the state of Texas. After meeting with your fetus, you will be given state-approved printed material that explains the consequences of your actions …

The woman interrupts: “Why are you reading all this?”

The man continues: “… as your doctor cannot be trusted to do so.”

In Boise on Wednesday – the same day that the strip described above did not run – the Idaho Senate State Affairs Committee passed a bill that would require an ultrasound before an abortion. The Idaho Senate State Affairs Committee consists of seven men and two women. The Idaho Legislature as a whole consists of 76 men and 29 women, making it about 72 percent male.

Which is more than Texas, where men are 80 percent of lawmakers.

And it’s better than Congress, which is about 83 percent male.

A woman lies on an examination table, feet in stirrups.

“But I don’t want a transvaginal sonogram,” she says.

“Sorry, miss, you’re first trimester,” says a doctor holding a probe. “The male Republicans who run Texas require that all such abortion-seekers be examined with a 10” shaming wand.”

The woman asks, “Will … Will it hurt?”

The nurse says, “Well, it’s not comfortable, honey … but Texas feels you should have thought of that.”

The doctor says, “By the authority vested in me by the GOP base, I thee rape.”

Trudeau’s strip is the first place I have seen the practical, on-the-ground reality of these bills portrayed. I don’t mean his vision of abortion – or mine, or Rick Santorum’s – is the single pure substance. I mean that some people might come to think this issue exists in hearing rooms and campaign speeches. They might eat so much rhetorical cotton candy that they never taste the reality of these laws.

These laws intrude in a place where most of us do not have to suffer intrusion: A woman walks into a clinic seeking a legal procedure and here’s what happens.

It doesn’t happen on Capitol floors, among the sea of suits and ties.

It does not happen at podiums or pulpits.

A woman lies on an exam table next to a doctor, looking at a sonogram screen.

The doctor says, “Miss, to help you make an informed decision, the Texas GOP requires you to have an intimate encounter with your fetus. Accordingly, by law, I am required to discuss the physical features of your fetus in real time.

“Okay, let’s see,” he continues, pointing to the screen. “That dot there could be a lung, but don’t hold me to it. And that’s a leg. And that speck may be genitals. Shall I describe its hopes and dreams?”

The woman says, “If it wants to be the next Rick Perry, I’ve made up my mind.”

Is it so awful to confront an argument you disagree with? About something we’re legislating right this very second? Is it so daring for a newspaper to publish such an argument?

Loaded questions, of course. But just as I wish we’d published these strips, I also don’t see it as a sign of the apocalypse that we didn’t. Newspapers edit – or censor – all the time. They make mistakes about what to say and what not to say, what to run and what not to run, all the time. One of the considerations is how much to offend in the course of argument.

Because that’s what this is, after all. Argument. We seem to forget that. Among the scores of people who have complained to the newspaper over this decision, some have deployed the hyperbole du jour: the war on women.

There is no war on women. There is an argument against abortion – an argument that is made by people who have deeply held beliefs, just as those opposing them do – and its supporters are using the tools of the republic to do whatever they can to oppose it. And there is a corresponding reactionary flailing among the patriarchy – men who think it’s OK to call a woman a slut as long as you don’t use the word slut, who unthinkingly convene a panel on contraceptive care with celibate clergymen but no women, who don’t understand the correspondence between their own freedom and the freedom of others.

I’m against it. But it’s not a war. Just as requiring religious organizations to offer contraceptive care in insurance plans is not a war on religion. And just as being considerate to Jewish people in December is not a war on Christmas.

We are at war right now, of course. Real war. People are dying. Soldiers and civilians. Americans and Afghans and Iraqis.

Doonesbury is a comic strip. Nobody got hurt here, except newspapers. And those wounds were self-inflicted.

A woman stands at the front desk of a clinic.

“That was incredibly unpleasant,” she says. “Where do I go for the abortion itself?”

“Sorry, hon,” another woman at the front desk tells her. “You have to come back tomorrow. There’s a 24-hour waiting period.”

“What? Why?”

“The Republican Party is hoping you get caught in a shame spiral and change your mind.”

The woman closes her eyes in frustration and says, “A final indignity.”

“Not quite. Here’s your bill.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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