My Experience: TSA Full-Body Scanner During the First Trimester
At three months pregnant, I did not expect to have my first encounter with a full body scanner. My husband I were flying round trip from Boston to Kansas City, and since the machines are only used in one of Boston-Logan’s terminals and have not yet been implemented in Kansas City, we didn’t think we would have to go through them.
I had spent the majority of 2006 to 2009 living abroad in Pakistan, so I’m very familiar with invasive pat downs and lengthy baggage checks. Flying out of Logan seemed like a simple process compared to flying out of Lahore, and I had expected the return trip to be fairly easy as well.
Instead one of our flights was canceled and we had to spend the night at Chicago O’Hare. I didn’t know what security checks were required to re-enter the airport. When I saw the full body scanners the next morning, I didn’t know what to do. I felt uncomfortable about the machines because I didn’t know anything about the backscatter technology used and if it posed any risk to my pregnancy.
As I went through the line, I asked a TSA attendant about the machines and if pregnant women had to go through. He didn’t mention that I could opt out and simply said, “It’s about as dangerous as watching television.” That didn’t make me feel very confident, but I felt like I had no other option but to go through the scanner.
After I went through, I was subjected to a pat down by a large woman in a tightly fitting TSA uniform. At my eye level, I could read her nametag — Bumpers. Bumpers was a full head taller than my 5’2″. She spoke in a monotone voice and made no facial expressions as she felt me up and down and waved the detector wand over my body. I was disturbed that this was happening in front of everyone, as in many other countries pat-downs for females is carried out in a private booth.
When I got through security, I felt as if I had been violated. It was as if I had no choices and no privacy. Upon arriving back in Massachusetts, I researched the full body scanner technology more, and although some experts say that the machines emit only 1/,1000 of the radiation given off in a routine x-ray, I felt that the technology was too new to know the short and long-term effects on a developing fetus. Since then I’ve learned there are multiple reasons to be concerned about the short and long-term effects of going through these machines, and prominent physicians and scientists have recommended avoiding them.
I also learned that technically passengers are allowed opt out of full body scans and get an enhanced pat down instead. I wondered why the TSA attendant that I had talked to didn’t mention this option. Then a few months later, I learned about another pregnant passenger who was harangued by TSA agents to go through a full body scanner at O’Hare. This passenger, Mary, knew that she had the right to refuse, but when she asked multiple times to have a pat down instead she was pressured to go through and told that the risk of the body scanner was “less than an ultrasound.”
For a pregnant woman, it can be akin to psychological torture to think that she may have done something harmful to the fetus growing inside her. My trip from O’Hare to Boston-Logan was fraught with worry, especially as I was in the first trimester with my first child. Even if levels of radiation are said to be low, pregnant women should have a right to refuse full body scans if they feel uncomfortable, and airport personnel should not claim to be authorities on prenatal health in order to make their jobs easier by just sending everyone through the machines.
Next time I travel, I will purposefully try to avoid airports that use full body scanners or I will utilize my alleged right to refuse the scan. If you are also concerned about the use of full body scanners, whether for health or privacy reasons, check this updated list of airports that use them before you book your next flights.
For more information:
Check out my recent op-ed piece on Matador Abroad – 11 Reasons the TSA is NOT Making Us Safer and Why it Needs to Be Reformed Now
I wish I had been more informed before my experience in O’Hare airport, and if you plan on flying this holiday season I encourage you to know what your options are and what the real issues are surrounding TSA procedures.
Feature Photo: Abigail Batchelder