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Virginia Ultrasound Bill Passes In House [UPDATE]

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MANDATORY ULTRASOUND
In Virginia state lawmakers are considering a bill that would make an ultrasound mandatory before a woman could receive an abortion. | AP

WASHINGTON -- The Virginia House of Delegates passed on Wednesday a revised version of a GOP-sponsored informed consent bill that would require women to undergo an ultrasound at least 24 hours before having an abortion. The new bill, which requires women to receive an external, transabdominal ultrasound rather than a more invasive transvaginal ultrasound, passed by a vote of 65-32.

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) revoked his support for the original bill just minutes before the House began debate on it, saying that the government did not have the power to require the transvaginal procedure.

"Mandating an invasive procedure in order to give informed consent is not a proper role for the state," McDonnell said in a statement. "No person should be directed to undergo an invasive procedure by the state, without their consent, as a precondition to another medical procedure."

"For this reason ... I am requesting that the General Assembly amend this bill to explicitly state that no woman in Virginia will have to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound involuntarily. I am asking the General Assembly to state in this legislation that only a transabdominal, or external, ultrasound will be required to satisfy the requirements to determine gestational age. Should a doctor determine that another form of ultrasound may be necessary to provide the necessary images and information that will be an issue for the doctor and the patient. The government will have no role in that medical decision," he said.

Virginia House Speaker William Howell (R) said during floor debates on the measure that McDonnell had helped GOP House members amend the bill based on the recommendations in his statement.

Del. Kathy Byron (R), the sponsor of the original bill, said she supports the new version. "I rise in support of this bill," she said Wednesday. "We will still be one state of seven strengthening their informed consent law."

But Democrats said they were not satisfied with the changes, or with the fact that they were introduced right before the vote on the bill took place.

"I think we need to spend time with this -- we shouldn't be playing doctor on the House floor with this kind of language," said Del. David Toscano (D). "The public has an interest in this bill and has not seen it until 20 minutes ago."

Del. Jennifer McClellan (D) said the amended bill causes more problems than the original, because performing a regular ultrasound on an early pregnancy does nothing to assess the age of the fetus.

"It tries to fix an issue I've raised on this floor," she said, referring the transvaginal ultrasound mandate, "but in doing so, it not only doesn't fix it but it makes it worse. What you have done is mandated for any abortion done early in a pregnancy an ultrasound that will be utterly useless."

Members of the state legislature speculated Wednesday morning that Republicans were looking for a way to rewrite the bill to avoid having to fully back down from it, and McClellan tweeted from the House floor around 2:30 pm that "a substitute to the ultrasound bill is being circulated."

"A lot of rumors are floating around this building that the Republicans are trying desperately to find some way out of this Pandora's box," said a top legislative staffer who works with Virginia's Democrats. "I think the sponsors didn't realize when this law passed in North Dakota that this was an intrusive ultrasound. But it would look terrible with their base if they backed down now and didn't pass it."

Democratic State Sen. Barbara Favola said she also heard that Republicans lawmakers may be buckling under pressure from women voters. "They're backing off because they're now hearing from women about it," she said. "Yesterday we had hundreds of women line the walkway between General Assembly and the Capitol in silent protest."

The Virginia General Assembly postponed a vote on the bill twice before taking it up on Wednesday. It has generated a firestorm of controversy because it would force doctors to perform an invasive, often medically unnecessary procedure on women without requiring their consent. Del. Charniele Herring (D) said the law was "akin to rape," and fellow Democratic Del. David Englin pointed out that "object sexual penetration is a serious sex crime in Virginia."

Jon Stewart lampooned the law on "The Daily Show" Tuesday night, prompting former Virginia Gov. and current Senate candidate Tim Kaine to scold Republicans for turning the state into a "laughingstock" and "fodder for late-night comedy shows."

"I don't want Virginia to be known as a state carrying out an extreme and even comical campaign against women and their health care choices," Kaine told reporters on Wednesday.

One House Republican staffer told HuffPost that it is typical for the House to postpone bills that may require extra debate, like this one. Republicans have no plans to abandon the bill, the staffer said, because they believe it should not be controversial.

"Internal ultrasounds are standard medical procedure already for Planned Parenthood in an early pregnancy," said the Republican staffer, who asked that her name not be used because she is not an official spokeswoman. "Unfortunately, not all doctors follow standard procedure. So this bill is helping to prevent against malpractice or a mother being rushed to the hospital with an ectopic pregnancy because the doctor didn't do any imaging before the abortion."

The staffer said Byron was aware of all the medical implications of the bill, including the fact that the procedure would be physically invasive, before she sponsored it.

Favola said that in order to diffuse the controversy, some Republicans have suggested amending the bill's language to state that doctors may perform an ultrasound on a woman if the procedure is deemed medically necessary. "It's absolutely silly," she said. "What are they doing? Do they just want to show they have power over women's bodies? If an ultrasound is medically needed, the doctor is already doing it. This is the most demeaning piece of legislation you could come up with."

Seven other states, including North Dakota and Texas, already have mandatory ultrasound laws in some form on the books. A federal district judge in Texas initially blocked a law there that requires doctors to describe an ultrasound in detail and play the fetal heartbeat to a woman seeking an abortion. But a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled that decision in January and allowed the law to go into effect.

Read McDonnell's full statement below:

I am pro-life. I believe deeply in the sanctity of innocent human life and believe governments have a duty to protect human life. The more our society embraces a culture of life for all people, the better country we will have. Over the course of my 20-year career in elected office, I have been glad to play a leading role in putting in place common-sense policies that protect and defend innocent human life in the Commonwealth. One of those bills was Virginia’s informed consent statute, of which I was the chief patron in the House of Delegates, finally seeing its passage in 2001. This session, the General Assembly is now considering amending this informed consent statute to include a requirement that any woman seeking an abortion receive an ultrasound in order to establish the gestational age for appropriate medical purposes, and to offer a woman the opportunity to voluntarily review that ultrasound prior to giving her legal informed consent to abortion.

Over the past days I have discussed the specific language of the proposed legislation with other governors, physicians, attorneys, legislators, advocacy groups, and citizens. 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. I have come to understand that the medical practice and standard of care currently guide physicians to use other procedures to find the gestational age of the child, when abdominal ultrasounds cannot do so. Determining gestational age is essential for legal reasons, to know the trimester of the pregnancy in order to comply with the law, and for medical reasons as well.

Thus, 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.

For this reason, I have recommended to the General Assembly a series of amendments to this bill. I am requesting that the General Assembly amend this bill to explicitly state that no woman in Virginia will have to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound involuntarily. I am asking the General Assembly to state in this legislation that only a transabdominal, or external, ultrasound will be required to satisfy the requirements to determine gestational age. Should a doctor determine that another form of ultrasound may be necessary to provide the necessary images and information that will be an issue for the doctor and the patient. The government will have no role in that medical decision.

I have requested other amendments that help clarify the purposes of the bill and reflect a better understanding of prevailing medical practices. It is my hope that the members of the General Assembly will act favorably upon these recommendations from our office. We will await their action prior to making any further comments on this matter.

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