US Law has fuzzy image of female reproductive rights

University of Suffolk Professor Jessica Silbey

Women’s reproductive rights in the United States are being obstructed by a flawed legal understanding of images.

Speaking at the Griffith Law School Public Lecture, University of Suffolk Professor Jessica Silbey, discussed the requirement for women seeking an abortion to undergo a mandatory internal ultrasound in some US states.

Professor Silbey said this practice impeded women’s reproductive rights.

“What does the ultrasound image tell the woman that she doesn’t already know? She knows she is pregnant. She’s there to terminate a pregnancy, ” Professor Silbey said.

“Women’s rights are under assault in the United States, as I’m sure they are in other parts of the world. The whole idea that the ultrasound image clarifies anything is part of a belief that images clarify, when they don’t always.”

“The image doesn’t look like a baby. In fact, it needs to be narrated and described in order for it to be legible. It is also part of a belief around motherhood that when you see your baby, you’ll feel connected to it and feel you should keep it.”

These beliefs combine to shame women in to keeping their pregnancy, said Professor Silbey.

“This is an insidious development under the guise of the truthfulness of the image and I want to see it stopped.”

However, Professor Silbey’s concerns around the use of images in law go further than the impact on women’s rights.

The law has a history of struggling with images and videos as legal tools, for proving or disproving the existence of liability, guilt or innocence.

“My experience with lawyers and judges is they take visual images for granted and they don’t investigate the visual image the same way they investigate language,” said Professor Silbey.

“Lawyers and judges are word people not image people, and they are just as susceptible to images as anybody else.”

Professor Silbey used the common practice of video taping confessions from police interrogations to demonstrate that what we see, can often be manipulated to give different meanings.

“Experimental data shows we’re more likely to think of a confession as voluntary, if the suspect appears alone in the shot,” Professor Silbey said.

“Even if it is the exact same confession, if it is filmed with two people in the frame as opposed to one person, it means something different to the law.”

By drawing on her experience as a litigator, constitutional law professor and her background in visual technology and image theory, her current research aims to make legal professionals more wary of images and techniques used to create them.

“Images are never more or less obscure than words and when we use images in law and the media to convey messages, we should be as skeptical as we are when we read something or hear someone talking,” Professor Silbey said.

“All images require context in order to understand them and often there are multiple frameworks through which to understand them,” said Professor Silbey.