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Newspapers Drop ‘Doonesbury’ Strips Dealing with Transvaginal Sonograms

Several newspapers around the United State have decided not to publish the popular satirical comic Doonesbury by Gary Trudeau this week because of strips dealing with the transvaginal ultrasounds now mandated for any woman who wishes to have an abortion in the state of Texas, thanks to a bill that was signed into law last year by Texas Governor and former presidential candidate Rick Perry.

The transvaginal ultrasounds have been the center of a great deal of political debate, as they are mandatory without regard to medical need for the procedure, and were originally a provision in a much-contested bill in Virginia that recently passed with a weakened mandate that required external abdominal sonograms rather than vaginal ones.

The first strip, which runs today, depicts a woman seeking an abortion at a medical clinic who is then told to “take a seat in the shaming room” and that a “middle-aged, male state legislator will be with you in a moment.” Upcoming strips show the woman being asked by a male legislator whether her parents “know [she's] a slut” and refer to the “10-inch shaming wand” used in the transvaginal ultrasounds.In an interview with Michael Cavna of Comics Riffs at The Washington Post, Trudeau expressed surprise that the sonograms, as well as the recent GOP-induced furors about contraception, have even become issues in the modern political landscape:

Roe v. Wade was decided while I was still in school. Planned Parenthood was embraced by both parties. Contraception was on its way to being used by 99-percent of American women. I thought reproductive rights was a settled issue. Who knew we had turned into a nation of sluts?

Trudeau also equated the forced insertion of a transvaginal wand into the body of woman seeking a legal procedure with rape — both in the interview and in the content of the strips — a semantic choice that has been questioned by some pro-choice advocates.

Newspapers refusing to run the strips include Florida’s Gaines Sun and Ocala Star-Banner. The LA Times and The Kansas City Star will run the comic on their op-ed pages, while The Standard-Examiner and The Oregonian split the difference, publishing the replacement strip in the print version of their newspaper while running the original online, an interesting reflection on the differing approaches to print and online editorial. Trudeau has made a replacement strip available for newspapers that decide not to run the strips, with 30 to 40 papers expressing interest in them.

Tom McNiff, managing editor of The Gainesville Sun and Ocala Star-Banner told USA Today that “the language the author used to make his point in two of the strips was quite graphic for a general readership,” while a Kansas City Star editor explained that “the content was too much for many of the readers of our family-friendly comic page.” Others, like the editors of The Cleveland Plain Dealer felt this was par for the course as “Garry Trudeau’s metier is political satire; if we choose to carry Doonesbury, we can’t yank the strip every time it deals with a highly charged issue.”

This isn’t Trudeau’s first time making waves about the subject of abortion, however; a series 1985 Doonesbury strips that satirized the anti-abortion movie “The Silent Scream” also courted controversy, and led to the only instance of Trudeau agreeing to pull his strips after objections from his syndicate. This time, however, they have his back.

Lee Salem, President of Doonesbury distributor Universal Uclick, noted that while there is some strong terminology in the strips, the cultural context for the conversation has changed significantly thanks to the more explicit terminology of the recent political debates over the subject, and the coarse, ad hominem attacks by popular conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh over issues of sexuality:

Thanks to the actions of the Virginia legislature, the Congressional hearings in Washington and the pronouncements of Rush Limbaugh, words like ‘contraception,’ ‘abortion,’ ‘slut’ and [medical] ‘wand’ are part of the vernacular.

Sarah Mirk, a contributor to the popular Oregon alt-weekly newspaper The Portland Mercury who often writes about comics, took aim at the editors of The Oregonian on her Tumblr, noting their dismissive attitudes towards the comics medium when they suggested that Trudeau’s satire was inappropriate because Doonesbury is “still a comic strip”:


Asked to comment on the strips by The Guardian, a spokesperson for Rick Perry said that “the decision to end a life is not funny,” suggesting that serious discussion and satire about difficult subjects have no place in comic strips, something that the Pulitzer-winning strip’s commentary on topics like Watergate, AIDS, pre-marital sex, homosexuality, the Iran-Contra Affair, Vietnam, the Iraq War, and the struggles of physically disabled military veterans has consistently disproved for oh, more than 40 years now.

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