Lawmakers in Virginia have backed off two highly controversial bills that would have been an unprecedented duel assault on the rights and privacy of women in the commonwealth. The rapid disintegration of support for the measures could the clearest evidence yet that a sustainable backlash is developing in what can only be described as a nationwide war on women.
While the Catholic Church and conservative lawmakers were busy culturing a national conversation on the “dangers of contraception” and whether health insurance ought to cover forms of birth control, Republican lawmakers in the Virginia legislature were pushing ahead two pieces of legislation that would have represented the nation’s strictest anti-abortion provisions currently on the books; a “personhood” law that would have have endowed unborn fetuses with individual rights and outlawed all abortions, and a separate bill that would require highly invasive “transvaginal” ultrasounds for all women — even in instances of rape or incest — seeking an abortion.
Criticism came from the moment the bills were proposed, with women’s health advocates correctly determining that the prospect of “transvaginal ultrasounds” mandated by the government would amount to state-sponsored rape. Still, the bills carried forward in the commonwealth’s legislature, passing in committee and being approved in a Virginia House vote.
Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell — a generally popular Republican elected in 2009 on a platform of technocratic competence in fixing the state’s lagging economy — shocked observers by initially promising to sign the ultrasound bill, even after widespread opposition had developed; well over half of Virginians are opposed to any requirement for ultrasounds, not just those of the “transvaginal” variety.
McDonnell’s office had said as recently as last week that the governor “fully supports” legislation mandating transvaginal ultrasounds for Virginia women. He released a statement on the day the bill a Senate committee that he would sign it if it came to his desk.
The sands of politics are eternally shifting, however, and McDonnell’s future aspirations for a national stage eventually trumped the risk of alienating conservatives in the state who enthusiastically backed the bill. McDonnell is on the short list for Republican vice-presidential candidates, being courted by establishment types to jump on the GOP ticket. Just like that, the governor’s “full” support for the ultrasound bill evaporated.
McDonnell pulled his support for the specific invasive ultrasound mandated in the legislature’s ultrasound bill on Wednesday, saying that “no person should be directed to undergo an invasive procedure by the state.”
“Over the past days I have discussed the specific language of the proposed legislation with other governors, physicians, attorneys, legislators, advocacy groups, and citizens,” McDonnell said. “It is apparent that several amendments to the proposed legislation are needed to address various medical and legal issues which have arisen. It is clear that in the majority of cases, a routine external, transabdominal ultrasound is sufficient to meet the bills stated purpose, that is, to determine gestational age.”
“Thus,” he continued, “having looked at the current proposal, I believe there is no need to direct by statute that further invasive ultrasound procedures be done. Mandating an invasive procedure in order to give informed consent is not a proper role for the state. No person should be directed to undergo an invasive procedure by the state, without their consent, as a precondition to another medical procedure.”
On Thursday, the Virginia House of Delegates finally dropped the mandate for invasive ultrasounds from the final. Legislation requiring traditional ultrasounds before any abortion — even in the case of rape or incest – easily passed the chamber.
By a 65-32 vote, the Republican-dominated House of Delegates gave its green light to 11th hour revisions proposed by Governor Bob McDonnell to tame the furor over the so-called “informed consent” legislation.
In its original form, every Virginia woman seeking an abortion would have had to submit to a transvaginal ultrasound, in which a probe is inserted deep into the vagina.
The resulting fetal image would remain in a woman’s medical file for seven years, and any doctor who failed to perform an pre-abortion ultrasound would be liable to prosecution and fines.
But under pressure from pro-choice activists, and stinging ridicule from late-night television comics, McDonnell tweaked the bill to make only non-intrusive abdominal ultrasounds mandatory.
A doctor could still recommend a transvaginal ultrasound, and a woman could lawfully refuse to have one.
The path to the eventual unraveling of the invasive ultrasound provision was crafted out of national exposure, public opposition, and a sense that lawmakers were blindly following ideology rather than acting in the best interests of women.
Lawmakers that wrote the bill were apparently unaware that requiring ultrasounds at the stage of pregnancy mandated in the legislation would only be possible by using the invasive “vaginal” procedure. Critics of the law even sought to highlight the nature of the what the state would be mandating for women by proposing forced “rectal exams” for men seeking drugs for erectile dysfunction.
Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax) certainly got the point. In an effort to highlight what she considered a gross personal intrusion, she proposed an amendment requiring that men get a rectal exam.
“Prior to prescribing medication for erectile dysfunction, a physician shall perform a digital rectal examination and a cardiac stress test,” declared the amendment, which the Senate clerk read aloud on the floor.
On the Senate floor, Howell had not been explicit about the intrusive nature of the ultrasound. “I thought I was being brave by saying ‘digital rectal,’ ” she said.
But Howell came to understand that some of her Senate colleagues failed to grasp how much the type of ultrasound in question was like the probing she’d proposed for men.
“I don’t think they understood what kind of ultrasound they were talking about,” she said. “I think they thought it was a mini-massage and not something approaching rape. People are squeamish about using words like ‘vagina,’ but in this case, it was necessary for people to understand how invasive this bill is.”
But as is the case with so many fights, the demise of Virginia’s vaginal ultrasound law and other controversial efforts to virtually ban abortions and birth control may be temporary. And other states already have nearly identical laws on the books that have gotten nowhere near the attention afforded the Virginia debacle.
Already Gov. McDonnell is backtracking from his previous backtrack. Despite his statement promising never to allow state government to force an “invasive procedure” on citizens, McDonnell now says that he only dropped his support for the ultrasound bill because of “legal concerns.”
The governor indicated that he decided against backing the legislation because of the legal ramifications it could have unleashed on the commonwealth. Consequently, if the legal landscape changes in Virginia or the governor receives different advice in the future, vaginal ultrasounds could easily make a comeback in the chmabers of the Virginia legislature.
And the defeat of the second Virginia anti-abortion bill that attracted national scrutiny — the “personhood” bill that would have outlawed all abortions — is by definition only a one-year reprieve. The Virginia Senate voted only to postpone the bill for the year, to be taken up again in the 2013 session after “further discussion and deliberation.”
In a stunning turn of events, the Virginia Senate has voted 24-14 to scuttle a bill that would have given fertilized eggs the same legal rights as people.
Sen. Richard L. Saslaw, D-Fairfax, proposed that House Bill 1, which had passed the Senate Education and Health Committee earlier today on an 8-7 party line vote, be sent back to the committee and carried over to the 2013 legislative session for further discussion and deliberation.
Then Sen. Thomas K. Norment Jr., R-James City, the Republican leader of the Senate, rose to support the motion, saying that the issues raised by the bill are more complex and far-reaching than previously thought and merit further study.
The vote effectively kills the bill for the year.
While the language of the Virginia legislation was unprecedented in that it specifically required “transvaginal” ultrasounds for all women seeking an abortion, the intent of the law is already in effect and being carried out by the state of Texas.
The controversial Texas sonogram law — recently upheld by a federal court — is even stricter than the bill that died in the Virginia legislature. There is so specific requirement that a “transvaginal” ultrasound take place, but abortion providers and women’s health advocates say that is the only procedure that can be used in order to comply with the law.
The original Virginia bill that garnered so much national outrage required doctors to perform a sonogram in advance of the abortion, using a transvaginal ultrasound if necessary, to determine the gestational age of the fetus. After originally championing the bill, McDonnell walked it back under pressure, working to produce a revised version that assures that women seeking abortions won’t be subject to a vaginal ultrasound. Women will be offered the chance to review the image of the fetus on a belly sonogram, but aren’t required to look at it.
The Texas law is more strict: It requires women to have a sonogram at least 24 hours ahead of an abortion, and the doctor to play the heartbeat aloud, describe the fetus, and show the woman the image, unless she chooses not to view it. Although the Texas law doesn’t specify what kind of ultrasound — belly or transvaginal — abortion providers say they almost always must use the transvaginal probe to pick up the heartbeat and describe the fetus at the early stage of pregnancy when most women seek abortions.
The push to enact so-called “personhood” laws — giving individual rights to fetuses from the moment of conception, thus banning all abortions and most birth control — is also alive and well in some states. While Virginia pushed off a decision on its law for a year and voters in Mississippi overwhelmingly rejected a personhood amendment last year, lawmakers in Oklahoma are on track to easily pass the strictest “personhood” legislation ever devised.
With a national anti-abortion interest group called “Personhood U.S.A.” lobbying on its behalf, the Oklahoma state Senate has passed a bill giving “personhood” to unborn fetuses and labeling all abortions a form of murder, as well as outlawing most forms of birth control. The next stop is the Oklahoma House, where it’s expected to pass, and then the desk of Republican Gov. Mary Fallin, who has pledged to sign it.
While the parade of laws cracking down on, women’s health, abortion rights and access to birth control has been overwhelming, some critics are finding unique ways to fight back.
In Georgia one female lawmaker has introduced legislation that would ban most vasectomies for men, a response to a proposed state law instituting prison sentences for some abortion providers.
Democratic Rep. Yasmin Neal, tongue planted firmly in cheek, described her bill as a way to help the “thousands of children” that are “deprived of birth” by male vasectomies.
As members of Georgia’s House of Representatives debate whether to prohibit abortions for women more than 20 weeks pregnant, House Democrats introduced their own reproductive rights plan: No more vasectomies that leave “thousands of children … deprived of birth.”
Rep. Yasmin Neal, a Democrat from the Atlanta suburb of Jonesboro, planned on Wednesday to introduce HB 1116, which would prevent men from vasectomies unless needed to avert serious injury or death.
The bill reads: “It is patently unfair that men avoid the rewards of unwanted fatherhood by presuming that their judgment over such matters is more valid than the judgment of the General Assembly. … It is the purpose of the General Assembly to assert an invasive state interest in the reproductive habits of men in this state and substitute the will of the government over the will of adult men.”
“If we legislate women’s bodies, it’s only fair that we legislate men’s,” said Neal, who said she wanted to write bill that would generate emotion and conversation the way anti-abortion bills do. “There are too many problems in the state. Why are you under the skirts of women? I’m sure there are other places to be.”
Personally, Neal said, she has no qualms with vasectomies.
“But even if it were proposed as a serious issue,” she said, “it’s still not my place as a woman to tell a man what to do with his body.”