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

22 Comments on “My Experience: TSA Full-Body Scanner During the First Trimester

    • My husband and I spent a month at the International House of Prayer – a bit of a spiritual retreat / marriage retreat for us. It was a good month, but man it was HOT in July.

      Yes, after I went through the scanner, I still had to get wanded and have a basic pat-down. It wasn’t like the ‘enhanced’ ones they’re doing now, but it was still a bit unnerving since I wasn’t expecting it. Well, maybe ‘Bumpers’ made it more unnerving than it had to be.

  1. I’m not for the full body scanners by any means, but you are still getting plenty of radiation just by flying at a high altitude, probably more than you would through the scanner. I still would opt out of the scanner in any situation though. :) Just a thought.

    • Good point Allison! Yes, this is something I read about afterward (although like you, I would now still choose to opt out of the scanner) – at the time I just felt so uninformed since I didn’t research it all before the trip (thinking I wouldn’t have to deal with it in the two airports I was using), and that lack of information/lack of choice was what really unnerved me about the situation. I really should have read about it before traveling since we were going through O’Hare even if we hadn’t planned to stop there; that way I wouldn’t have felt so anxious and would have known I could opt out.

  2. Apparently there are two types of new scanners, one x-ray and one not. They are supposed to provide skin only penetration so the baby is likely to be safe. The concern is for those of us prone to skin/dermal cancers. The safest option is to have the enhanced pat-down, even though that is also not pleasant.

  3. I was forced to go through the scanner in Las Vegas while third trimester pregnant last July. I repeatedly asked for the optional screening because of my very OBVIOUS pregnancy and was refused. After being scanned, I complained to the TSA supervisor on duty who seemed very unconcerned, but said that the agent “should” have offered me the alternative. Now, I will not fly. I am not going to let myself be groped OR irradiated, and I sure as hell won’t let anyone lay a hand on my children or irradiate them. I also filed a complaint with the ACLU.

    • How terrible! They are definitely not supposed to refuse the opt-out, and gosh, it’s even worse they forced you go through it when it was so obvious you were pregnant and concerned. What an awful situation. We’ve decided to always opt for the pat down, for both us and our child, although we are a bit sketched out about children (especially very young ones) being given the pat down. Seriously, passengers should not have to go through this, especially because these procedures are not likely to increase safety at all. I’ve written a detailed editorial on the topic of how ineffective the TSA measures are here: 11 Reasons the TSA is NOT Making Us Safer and Why it Needs to Be Reformed Now.

  4. I will never fly again as long as the Government uses,for example, the TSA to “legally” sexually harass me. When enough flyers say NO!! this is an invasion of personal privacy only then willl this change…follow the money trail; huge numbers of people saying NO! will cause delays, some will stop flying which effects the bottom line. At that point change will take place. Do you wonder why the radiation techs at the clinics go behind a special wall when you receive radiation? It is accumulative. We Americans must stop…listen…look at the bigger picture…, it is about more government control of the people…they want us to shut up, rollover, play dead and be weak.

    • Good point LuLu, there are many, many things that are legal and touted as ‘safe’ here in the US, but when we look at the cumulative or synergistic effects the picture becomes much muddier and scarier. Not only for new, questionable technology like the scanners, but also for the types of additives and chemicals allowed (or forced into) our food and drinking water.

  5. We flew out of Detroit airport on the way home from visiting family. We had already made the decision that if we were pulled out to do the scanner that we would opt out. I was fine going through as was my 2 year old son. My husband on the other hand, was pulled aside and required to be checked. They ushered him towards the scanner. He politely declined and said he would rather have the pat down. The TSA agent was very rude and said, “You can opt out but it is going to be a VERY LONG WAIT to get a pat down.” My husband then asked them why that is and they were dismissive and told him to just go through the scanner. If we hadn’t hit traffic getting to the airport that morning and if we weren’t running rather late, he may have made a bigger deal of it. He went through the scanner but was not happy. When we got to the gate he was fuming. They bullied him through the scanner by telling him he would be late for his flight.

    We won’t be flying again anytime soon.

    • Thanks for sharing your experience Briana. Sadly, these stories of the TSA agents making excuses and pressuring passengers to go through the scanners seem all too common. It’s crazy that you’d have to get to the airport hours earlier just to try to exercise your right to opt out and get the pat down instead.

  6. Last month my wife and I were going to take a flight north to visit friends . We both went through the metal detectors with out setting off any alarms. However , my wife was selected by a TSA agent to go through the scanner. She refused and asked was there a problem. He did not answer her. He yelled OPT OUT HERE in a loud voice. She was told she would have to go through a pat down for refusing the scanner. She asked again why, I did not set off any alarms. Again , no answer, only a smirk. Thats when I and her said thats enough. I and several passengers who we did not know could see what was going on here. Because when he yelled opt out here , only men agents came running. An argument began , a supervisor and a female agent soon came because of the loud speaking. Even with the threat of arrest other passengers voice up , because they could also see what was going on. My wife is very pretty and busty at 5 feet tall with a cute figure. The agents that day clearly had other things on their minds other than the public well fair. She was no threat to anyone, did not set off any alarms and is not on any no fly list.We were even threatened with arrest for failure to complete their procedure. They tried to move us to another location away from the crowd, but we did not move. I asked for a police officer. The agents who began this whole affair were absent when the officers arrived. They were told to leave by a female supervisor. The other passengers ,again who we did not know voice up to the officers and were willing to give a statement if needed . My thanks to them that had the courage to clearly see what was really going on . We had gotten to the airport early that day and were not in danger of missing our flight. The police spoke with the a supervisor in a suit to allow him to escort us to the gate under his supervision. These TSA agents clearly had other motives on there minds that day . My wife was not dressed trashy or provocatively that day. They even tried to get here to go into the scanner turned off with an agent standing on the foot print in the scanner. What kind of perverts are they hiring to do this job?

    • What a disturbing story. I’ve read a few accounts of attractive women being singled out for further searches. I’m so glad other passengers supported you and your wife. I think that is one of the keys to overcoming all this ‘security theater’ hype – we need to be willing stand together as passengers and not just quietly allow inappropriate situations to take place simply because of our own fears.

  7. I want to advise everyone not to go through these scanners. I recently travelled extremely early in a pregnancy and went through a scanner without realizing it until it was too late. I was travelling with my 3 small children and never saw a sign( my only indication of the scan). I immediately complained to the TSA that I did not know it was a body scanner and was pregnant. Of course I was told there was no need to worry and it was harmless. About 2 weeks later I had a miscarriage. I will never know if this miscarriage was just one of those things or a result of the scan. I know they say that the exposure is fine but I don’t believe anyone really knows the actual effect on an embryo especially at the very early stages. I know I will always be haunted by the moment and have been advocating that the TSA at least inform passengers that they are going through a scanner so they can make any health concerns known. Everyone should be given the right to make a choice. If I had been told I would have opted for a pat down and would always opt for one now regardless of my preganancy status.

  8. I also don’t recommend to anyone that’s aware that’s pregnant to go through any body scanner at airports or courthouses. All these machines produce EMF’s which is also affect the developing fetus, specially in the early weeks. The makers of the machine since there is no other technology and they don’t care about others having a miscarriage, stupidly say they’re safe, just like the stupid guards in the courthouses. It’s not their baby and thereafter there’s no way to prove the machine caused you a miscarriage. HOWEVER, I MUST SAY, BEING AN INTERPRETER I WENT THROUGH THE SCANNERS 3 TIMES DURING MY FIRST 4 WEEKS BEFORE I KNEW I WAS PREGNANT AND ONE MORE TIME I WAS TOLD IT WAS SAFE. SO SUUUREEE, AT SIX WEEKS I HAD THE UNEXPECTED MISCARRIAGE…the most horrible experience a woman can have.
    Refuse the scanners and demand the supervisors, fight back and don’t go through it unless you want to harm your baby. The federal courthouse of fort lauderdale advised me they don’t offer paddowns, only for peacemaker holders, and that’s discriminatory. I’m calling my Congressman.

    , on the contrary there are doctors against it, I believe they are not safe.

    • KS, I’m so sorry to hear about your experience. I agree, it’s best to exercise caution with these scanners and avoid them.

  9. If you know you are pregnant do not go through any scanners at airports or courthouses. Likewise if planning a baby or your first baby, keep track of your cycle so you do not go through scanners by accident and finding out later you were pregnant. I went 4 times through the State courthouse scanner in Fort Lauderdale, FL and scanner gun, the first 3 times I didn’t know I was pregnant, the last time, I knew I was pregnant and worried, asked if it was safe, and while being rushed by an ignorant male guard, he assured me that it was safe. Then about 2 and a half weeks later I had a miscarriage. This was my first child ever, I had so many plans. I had even taken a cute picture of my pregnancy test on a floral background to post online and tell my friends. My excitement was crashed down at 7 weeks of pregnancy all of a sudden. I’m positive the EMF’s had something to do with my miscarriage. FYI, at the State Courthouses in South Florida they allow paddowns but it appears not at the Federal Courthouses, which is discriminatory if they do it for people with peacemakers and you have a doctor’s note why can’t they give you a paddown, because of lazyness. That’s the federal government guards, lazy, fat, old guards, pretending to do a job, just waiting to retire and collect on their big pensions from us taxpayers. Safety procedures that don’t work and only annoy the law abiding citizens.

    If you encounter this situation, and they refuse your physical examination because they ARE LAZY and ask you to go through the scanners, turn around and leave by all means.

    I can’t wait to research what the laws are on these so called safety procedures that don’t work and what is written. Because in my experience dealing with scanners on an everyday basis, sometimes you may get a guard that doesn’t know what he’s doing and he will refuse the physical check and others not and because most people take their word and do not request a supervisor, or complain to their Congressman or the government, they lose their babies weeks later.

    Overall guards are low iq people with a training and a good paying job because their life is on the line and they’re told non-sense by the makers of these scanners that earn millions of dollars and probably give kickbacks to the entities using their products.

    The research shows that these harsch rules do not make American more safe. Regardless, I didn’t refuse a physical paddown. I think it is just laziness.

    I started researching about EMF’s after my miscarriage since I was having a normal pregnancy and started looking for explanations as of why.

  10. Heather- I know this is old, but was your baby okay? This exact situation happened to me yesterday and I’m terrified.

    • Yes, I believe there was no effect from the scanner, although with all the environmental toxins we are exposed to it would be difficult to tell if anything he did come down with has any relation to this event.

  11. i didnt know i was pregant i travel in usa during 4-7 weeks and dont remember how many times i went through the machines
    i am now 34 weeks and still so worried if my baby will be ok
    anyone has give birth to a baby and all is ok
    please i am so worried

    • Hi Mara,

      Unfortunately there has not yet been extensive testing and research on the short and long-term effects of these scanners on adults, children or babies in the womb. I went through the machines and my baby is healthy, although when I travel in the future I will opt for a pat down instead.

  12. Hope this topic is alive? My wife is in 28 week pregnancy and she was forced to go trough scanner even n UK it is optional and I asked about alternative but no chance to choose. I am worried about the influence of this scanner; hope tit is different kind body scanner than in US? We were told that it is nothing worries about but I do not believe it and I am ready to fight to attitude in Stansted airport in this case.

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