The Idaho Capitol was part medical clinic, part reality TV show and all cultural battlefield on Wednesday, as an anti-abortion advocate secured a basement meeting room to conduct live ultrasound procedures on six women before a mostly female audience of 150.
Some were ejected from the room by Idaho State Police troopers after interrupting activist Brandi Swindell's descriptions of the ultrasound images shown on three projector screens.
Swindell, a Boise resident who briefly caused an international incident with her arrest in China for protesting abortion ahead of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, hoped the event would help convince state lawmakers to support a bill that would require women seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound first.
Currently, Idaho requires women seeking an abortion be given the option of an ultrasound. The House planned to take up the ultrasound mandate on Thursday. The measure has already passed the Senate, 23-12.
"How can anybody call this offensive?" Swindell said. "Who doesn't love an ultrasound image of a baby?"
Foes say Republicans who typically espouse limited government are encroaching on the doctor's office. They say the measure, Senate Bill 1387, is so extreme it provides no exceptions for medical emergencies, rape or incest.
"We just think it's another way that people are playing politics with women's health," said Hannah Brass, a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood in Idaho who attended the ultrasound exhibition.
"Victims of rape, women who have fetal anomalies wouldn't love an ultrasound," Brass added. "The difference between what happened today and what we're talking about in the legislation is, the women today chose to have that ultrasound. The bill takes that decision away from them."
For an hour and a half, Swindell guided the women lying on a table shielded from the crowd by a bamboo divider.
"Does this feel invasive at all?" she asked.
"No, I'd do this every day, if I could," at least two of them replied.
As an ultrasound technologist ran a sensor over one woman's taut belly, Swindell exclaimed, "This baby is ready to testify."
The ultrasounds were done on the women's abdomens, not using the more-invasive vaginal ultrasound equipment employed by many doctors for women whose fetuses are less than 10 weeks old.
Swindell deftly deflected objections from audience members opposed to the bill, some of whom were pulled from the meeting after voicing their objections aloud. One woman was escorted out after shouting, "It's against Idaho code to insert anything up a woman without her consent."
At Swindell's suggestion that "women deserve access to medically accurate information," a Boise resident, Lea Bowman, couldn't contain herself.
"We have access, Brandi, already," Bowman called out, a response that resulted in a trip into the hall with a trooper.
Bowman, who was allowed to return, said she was frustrated by the one-sided nature of the event. Swindell had promised a question-and-answer session after the exhibition that never materialized.
"It's a dog-and-pony show," Bowman said. "Brandi Swindell is very good at what she does: Framing one side of an issue, and making people who don't agree with her seem like they're evil."
Swindell told several women she ran out of time and had to vacate the room.
Just six of Idaho's 105 legislators attended, only three of whom were from the chamber that has yet to vote on the bill: Republican Reps. Janice McGeachin, of Idaho Falls; Gayle Batt, of Wilder; and Brent Crane, of Nampa.
Event organizers called it a resounding success, in part because reporters also attended.
"There will be a ripple effect," Swindell said. "It was a home run."
Jason Herring, director of the group Right to Life of Idaho, said afterward he assumed the crowd of vocal opponents who gathered outside the meeting room and chanted loudly at times may have discouraged more lawmakers from stopping by.
"The main thing was to show the reality, the certainty and the humanity of life in the womb," Herring said.
For foes of the ultrasound mandate, however, the event represented something else.
"You have no right to impose your religion on me," said Boise resident Yvette Sedlewicz, before she, too, was asked to leave by Idaho State Police.