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Mandatory Ultrasound vs. HPV Vaccine: Virginia Lawmakers Debate Government Overreach

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The Virginia Senate, following in the lower house's footsteps, considered two bills this week that expose a major philosophical difference dividing Republicans and Democrats: the line between a law that properly protects women's health and one that reaches too far into women's private medical decisions.

When the GOP-dominated lower house passed a bill last week that would force women to undergo an ultrasound procedure before having an abortion, even when it's medically unnecessary, Democrats criticized the bill for mandating a government overreach into a decision that should be made between a woman and her doctor.

"A party that claims to be about small government is now mandating a medical procedure," Sen. Barbara Favola (D) told HuffPost. "There is no other example in the Virginia code where politicians are telling doctors how to practice medicine."

Republicans see it differently. The same lawmakers in the House of Delegates who pushed the mandatory ultrasound bill have thrown their support behind a bill to repeal an existing state law requiring girls to receive the human papillomavirus vaccine before the sixth grade. They offered up the same logic to criticize the HPV vaccine mandate that the Democrats used against the ultrasound mandate.

"We just want to make sure parents are evaluating the risks of what they're giving their daughters, and not a legislative body," said Del. Kathy Byron (R), who sponsored both the mandatory ultrasound bill and the HPV vaccine repeal. "I don't think that we have the medical degree to make those decisions."

Gov. Bob McDonnell (R), who helped GOP lawmakers rewrite the ultrasound legislation, joined state Republicans in opposing the HPV vaccine mandate.

"The vaccination policy was passed here in Virginia in 2007, and Governor [Tim] Kaine amended the bill to include a general opt-out," McDonnell's spokeswoman, Taylor Thornley, told HuffPost on Tuesday. "The mandate is not a policy with which the [current] governor agrees."

As Thornley noted, the HPV vaccine law -- unlike the ultrasound bill, which would apply to all women seeking an abortion -- established an informed-consent procedure. It requires the state to send a letter telling parents that the HPV vaccination is available for their daughters and then lets them opt out of having their children vaccinated if they wish.

Proponents of the vaccine say it's no different from the other immunizations the state requires, such as polio, tetanus and hepatitis. Of the 6.2 million American women who contract HPV each year, about 10,000 develop cervical cancer as a result, and doctors argue that widespread use of the vaccine would greatly reduce those numbers.

"The HPV vaccine is fundamentally different from the mandatory ultrasound because it's a public health issue," said Del. Chris Stolle (R), who is also a gynecologist. "From my perspective, the ultrasound is too much government intrusion into health care. But HPV is a communicable disease" that can be prevented by a vaccine.

The current argument in Virginia mimics the national debate over the HPV vaccine mandate late last year. Fellow GOP presidential candidates attacked Texas Gov. Rick Perry for having signed an executive order in 2007 requiring the vaccine. Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) described the mandate as "having little girls inoculated at the force and compulsion of the government," and Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) slammed it for being a "government injection."

But Bachmann proposed a federal mandatory ultrasound bill in October similar to the original ultrasound bill that Virginia Republicans proposed. The congressional bill would force women to undergo an invasive transvaginal ultrasound procedure before having an abortion.

"These positions are totally in conflict with each other," said Del. Charniele Herring (D), the Virginia House minority whip. "It doesn't make sense -- your government can reach into the doctor's office at this point, but not at that point. They want it both ways."

The Virginia Senate passed the mandatory ultrasound bill on Tuesday by a vote of 21 to 19. They had voted on Monday to delay the HPV vaccine repeal until next year's legislative session.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Del. Chris Stolle as a Democrat. He is a Republican.

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