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An abortion rights blunder in Virginia?

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Eva Russo Associated Press Hundreds protest Virginia’s mandatory ultrasound law, signed into law on March 6, at the Virginia State Capitol. Two weeks ago I wrote about the abortion rights movement’s big strategic success in Virginia. Advocates had used emotional, highly charged language to rally supporters against a mandatory ultrasound law that had already passed in seven other states with little backlash or fanfare.

Fast-forward two weeks: Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell signed Wednesday HB642, a law requiring women to obtain an ultrasound prior to terminating a pregnancy. The abortion rights movement’s strategic success could, at this point, also be read as a pretty big blunder.

How did that happen? After such a strong backlash, why did Virginia’s ultrasound law still become law? Most of it has to do with what the abortion rights movement focused its opposition on: A provision of the abortion restriction that could be easily dropped, while allowing the larger bill to go forward.

Nearly all the outrage about the Virginia law was focused on the invasive nature of the procedure: That women would likely have to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound in order to determine how far along the pregnancy was. That’s the part that caught the eye of everyone from Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick to Saturday Night Live’s Amy Pohler, who blasted the provision.

Facing widespread backlash, McDonnell dropped it: On Feb. 22, he asked Virginia legislators to rewrite the legislation to ensure no transvaginal ultrasounds would be required. Some abortion rights advocates celebrated a victory, with McDonnell backing down. The opposition to Virginia’s law became notably more muted, although some protests did continue at the Virginia capitol building in Richmond. The news cycle moved on and, as you can see in this graph, Google searches for “Virginia abortion” dropped off significantly:

The protest died down, but the abortion restriction was not halted. The legislature followed through on McDonnell’s request. They wrote a bill that would still require ultrasounds, but only those performed externally. They passed it. And, on Wednesday, McDonnell passed it.

Abortion rights supporters say the final version isn’t less restrictive than what they were up against initially, in that it still requires an ultrasound prior to an abortion. “It’s not any better than what they introduced in the first place,” says Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state legislation for the Guttmacher Institute.

Abortion opponents have, meanwhile, celebrated the new restriction. “Abortion advocates engaged in a vicious campaign of misinformation against a proposal that would require a life-saving ultrasound test before giving women an abortion-inducing drug or an abortion procedure,” Americans United for Life President Charmaine Yoest said in a statement. “Ultrasounds are the gold standard of medical care, and women deserve to have such testing.”

The abortion rights movement did have a victory in Virginia in terms of mobilizing its supporters in a way that didn’t really happen in 2011, a year when a record number of abortion restrictions passed. But that didn’t get advocates all the way to their end goal: Blocking new abortion restrictions from coming into effect.

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