1:17pm

Thu February 23, 2012
U.S.

Virginia Governor Backs Down From Ultrasound Bill

Originally published on Fri February 24, 2012 8:29 am

Several states are considering laws that would mandate an ultrasound before a woman has an abortion. Critics say the laws are unnecessary and intrusive, and the debate reached a fever pitch recently over a Virginia bill that would have required an invasive ultrasound procedure.

On Wednesday, Virginia's Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, asked legislators to back off and revise the House bill. Later that day, the Senate version of the bill was withdrawn by its sponsor. Now, a version of the bill that calls for a less invasive ultrasound is working its way through the Virginia General Assembly.

The Ultrasound Arguments

The original Virginia bill mandated that a transvaginal ultrasound procedure be performed before an abortion. Unlike abdominal ultrasounds, which are performed externally, transvaginal ultrasounds require doctors to use a probe. Some have called it medical rape; comedians Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers even took aim at the state on Saturday Night Live.

McDonnell changed his position after a protest outside the state capitol and criticism from moderates in his own party. In a statement released Wednesday, the governor said it's not the proper role for the state to mandate an invasive procedure and no one should have to undergo such a procedure without giving consent.

Some anti-abortion activists disagree. Olivia Gans of the Virginia Society for Human Life says seeing ultrasound images may get a woman to change her mind about having an abortion. She also says many doctors who provide abortions already perform transvaginal ultrasounds.

"I think it's unfortunate that the debate was hijacked," Gans says. "That's their standard of medical practice. So this bill was doing nothing more than recognizing and making solid for the woman's sake the opportunity to guarantee that was being done."

It's unclear how many doctors perform transvaginal ultrasounds or abdominal ultrasounds before abortions, but abortion rights activists say neither one should be mandated.

"I don't think that any of us want politicians interfering with our medical decisions or the government mandating what is medically necessary," says Laura Meyers, a chief executive officer at Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington. "This has nothing to do with the health and safety of women; it has to do with increasing the barriers to abortion care for women, demeaning women and interfering with the patient/doctor relationship."

Seven states have passed laws that mandate ultrasounds before abortions, but the measures vary. After a court battle, one of the strictest laws recently went into effect in Texas. It requires doctors to show women ultrasound images and to describe them in detail.

Elizabeth Nash is with the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that tracks legislation on sexual and reproductive health. She says more than a dozen states are considering some kind of ultrasound bill.

"We're seeing bills across a whole spectrum and we're seeing these bills across the country," she says. "We're seeing them in places like Alabama all the way up north to Michigan."

The Politics Of Ultrasound Bills

Virginia's ultrasound bill turned into an embarrassing political liability for McDonnell at a time many see him as a potential candidate for the GOP vice presidential nomination. Mark Rozell, who teaches public policy at George Mason University, says McDonnell was smart to back off of the stricter ultrasound bill.

"What Gov. McDonnell did was an enormous help to him and to his potential political future at the national level," he says.

According to Rozell, the governor has high ratings for being a bipartisan leader and the decision to ask for a more moderate bill secures his GOP base. The House version of the bill would require a less invasive abdominal ultrasound to determine the age of the fetus.

Other states trying to pass similar bills will also face some tough scrutiny, Rozell says.

"I think it all sends a strong message to other states that they will incur the same type of backlash if they move forward with such a proposed requirement," he says, "and it will attract a substantial amount of national political attention, as it did in Virginia."

But recent events in Virginia haven't changed the minds of people on either side of the abortion debate. Those who oppose abortion say the ultrasound bills are necessary, while abortion rights activists say they're politically motivated and show lawmakers are going too far.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Now, we're going to hear how the abortion debate is playing out in Virginia. This week, legislators voted to pass a bill that would require an invasive ultrasound before an abortion. But yesterday, Virginia's Republican governor asked lawmakers to back off and revise the bill.

NPR's Kathy Lohr reports.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Furor erupted over Virginia's bill, which would have mandated the transvaginal ultrasound because of the specific fetal measurements required by the bill. Some have called it medical rape and comedians took aim at the state. This spoof aired on NBC's "Saturday Night Live."

(SOUNDBITE OF SHOW, "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE")

AMY POEHLER: The Virginia House of Representatives this week passed a bill that required women to have a transvaginal ultrasound before having an abortion. Really? Now don't get me wrong, I love transvaginal. It's my favorite airline.

LOHR: Unlike abdominal ultrasounds, which are performed externally, transvaginal ultrasounds require doctors to use a probe. This week, after a protest outside the capital in Richmond and criticism from moderates in his own party, Republican Governor Bob McDonald changed his mind about the bill. In a statement, the governor said it's not the proper role for the state to mandate an invasive procedure; that no one should have to undergo this procedure without their consent.

Some antiabortion activists disagree.

OLIVIA GANS: I think it's unfortunate that the debate was hijacked.

LOHR: Olivia Gans, with the Virginia Society for Human Life, says seeing ultrasound images may get a woman to change her mind about having an abortion. And she says many doctors who provide abortions already perform transvaginal ultrasounds.

GANS: That's their standard of medical practice, so this bill was doing nothing more than recognizing and making solids for the women's sake the opportunity to guarantee that was being done.

LOHR: Actually, it's unclear how many doctors perform transvaginal ultrasounds or abdominal ultrasounds before abortions. But abortion rights activists say neither should be mandated.

Laura Myers is with Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington.

DR. LAURA MEYERS: I don't think that any of us want politicians interfering with our medical decisions or the government mandating what is medically necessary. Again, this has nothing to do with health and safety of women. It has to do with increasing the barriers to abortion care for women, demeaning women, and interfering with the patient-doctor relationship.

LOHR: Seven states already have passed laws that mandate ultrasounds before abortions. The measures vary; one in Texas requires doctors to show women ultrasound images and to describe them in detail. That law recently went into effect after a court battle.

Elizabeth Nash is with the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks the laws, she says more than a dozen states are considering some kind of ultrasound bill.

ELIZABETH NASH: So, we're seeing bills across the whole spectrum. And we're seeing these bills across the country. So we're seeing them in places like Alabama, all the way up north to Michigan.

LOHR: Virginia's ultrasound bill ended up being an embarrassing political liability for Governor McDonald, at a time many see him as a potential candidate for the GOP vice presidential nomination. Mark Rozell teaches public policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. He says McDonald is smart to back off of the stricter ultrasound bill.

PROFESSOR MARK ROZELL: What Governor McDonald did was an enormous help to him and his potential political future at the national level.

LOHR: Rozell says the governor has high ratings for being a bipartisan leader, that the decision to ask for a more moderate bill secures his GOP base.

As for other states trying to pass similar bills, Rozell says they will face tough scrutiny as well.

ROZELL: I think it all sends a strong message to other states that they will incur the same type of backlash, if they move forward with such a proposed requirement. And it will attract a substantial amount of national political attention, as it did in Virginia.

LOHR: But recent events in Virginia haven't changed the minds of people on either side of the abortion debate. Those who oppose abortion say the ultrasound bills are necessary, while abortion rights activists say they're politically motivated and show lawmakers are going too far.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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