By BILL DRAPER
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A national syndicate will offer replacement “Doonesbury” comic strips to newspapers that don’t want to run a series that uses graphic imagery to lampoon a Texas law requiring women to have an ultrasound before an abortion, executives said Friday.
A handful of newspapers say they won’t run next week’s series, while several others said the strips will move from the comics to opinion pages or websites only. Many already publish the strip by cartoonist Garry Trudeau, whose sarcastic swipes at society’s foibles have a history of giving headaches to newspaper editors, on editorial pages.
“We run ‘Doonesbury’ on our op-ed page, and this series is an example of why,” said David Averill, editorial page editor for the Tulsa World. “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.”
The comic strips feature a woman who goes to an abortion clinic and is confronted by several people who suggest she should be ashamed. Among them is a doctor who reads a script on behalf of Texas Gov. Rick Perry welcoming her to a “compulsory transvaginal exam,” and a middle-aged legislator who calls her a “slut.”
One panel equates the invasive procedure to rape and describes the device used to perform it as a “10-inch shaming wand.”
“Our readers are accustomed to pointed political and social commentary in strips like ‘Doonesbury’ and ‘Mallard Fillmore,”’ Tom McNiff, managing editor of The Gainesville Sun and Ocala Star-Banner in central Florida, said in an emailed statement explaining the decision not to run the series. “But the language the author used to make his point in two of the strips was quite graphic for a general readership.”
Trudeau said Friday that “it would have been a little surprising” if there hadn’t been any pushback against the series.
“Abortion remains a deeply contentious subject. Having said that, the goal is definitely not to antagonize editors and get booted from papers,” he said in an email to The Associated Press. “It’s just an occupational risk.”
Texas’ law does not specify the type of sonogram a woman must receive, but a transvaginal ultrasound is necessary to meet requirements that the doctor show the woman an image of the fetus, describe its features and make the fetal heartbeat audible in the first trimester. The procedure uses a wand inserted in the vagina to yield an image instead of a wand rubbed over a woman’s belly.
Asked for comment on the “Doonesbury” series, Perry spokesman Catherine Frazier said the governor is proud of his leadership on the sonogram law.
“The decision to end a life is not funny,” Frazier said. “There is nothing comic about this tasteless interpretation of legislation we have passed in Texas to ensure that women have all the facts when making a life-ending decision.”
Sue Roush, managing editor at the Universal UClick syndicate, said newspapers uncomfortable with the abortion law series have the option of a set of substitute strips.
Steve Shirk, manager editor of The Kansas City Star, said his paper would use the replacements in the comics section while moving the abortion series to the opinion page.
“We felt the content was too much for many of the readers of our family friendly comic page,” Shirk said. “We felt that (op-ed) page was more appropriate for that story line.”
Dennis Ryerson, editor of the Indianapolis Star, said the newspaper would use an earlier “Doonesbury” strip instead.
“We simply don’t want to be part of the personalization and debasement of political discourse. We’ve had too much of that from all sides,” Ryerson said.
Chris Mele, executive editor of the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa., said the paper will run the replacement strips during the week, but the Texas series will appear March 18 on the front of its op-ed section. He said the paper would try to “have a dialogue” with its readers about the debate.
Universal UClick president Lee Salem said he wouldn’t be surprised if 20 to 30 of the 1,400 newspapers that carry “Doonesbury” decided to opt out and run the replacements.
“Once every five or six months there’s usually something in ‘Doonesbury’ that causes a stir. Every two or three years there’s something that causes a bigger stir,” Salem said. “Historically, that’s par for the course with ‘Doonesbury’ because Garry explores topics on comics pages that are not normally there.”
Six installments of “Doonesbury” satirizing the anti-abortion movie “The Silent Scream” were canceled in 1985 when the syndicate decided they were too controversial to be distributed.
Other states have enacted laws requiring pre-abortion ultrasounds, although Virginia removed a provision from its measure that specifically called for the invasive exam. The measure in its original form had become a target of national political columnists and the word “transvaginal” was mocked and parodied on “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.”
Associated Press writers Matt Moore in Philadelphia; Mitch Stacy in Tampa Bay, Fla.; and Chris Tomlinson in Austin, Texas, contributed to this report.