Virginia Senate passes bill requiring women to undergo ultrasound before abortion

February 1, 2012

The Virginia Senate passed a bill Wednesday that would require women to have an ultrasound before an abortion, the first of several legislative measures this year that are expected to dramatically alter abortion law in the state.

Democrats and moderate Republicans in the Senate had rejected similar legislation each year for the past decade, arguing that the bills’ intent is to discourage women from the procedure. But now that the body is more conservative, abortion and other social legislation are back to the forefront.

Republicans, in control of both chambers for only the second time since the Civil War, are looking to pass a slew of bills in the 60-day session that take on abortion. They include banning the procedure after 20 weeks of pregnancy, requiring that insurers that cover abortions also offer policies that do not, and giving rights to a fertilized egg at the moment of conception. Another bill, which will be debated in the House of Delegates on Thursday, would end state subsidies for poor women to abort fetuses that have serious birth defects.

The House has been pushing the abortion legislation for years but only now has sympathetic partners in the Senate and the governor’s mansion.

The House is expected to easily pass the ultrasound bill in the coming weeks. Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who opposes abortion rights, has already said he would sign it into law.

The measure passed Wednesday would require a woman to undergo an ultrasound to determine the gestation age of the fetus and be given an opportunity to view the pictures. A woman who refuses to view the ultrasound would have to sign a statement — which would become a part of her medical file — saying she was given the option. The bill also would require the abortion provider to keep a printed copy of the image in the patient’s file.

McDonnell, a rising star in his party and a possible vice presidential contender, has been uncharacteristically outspoken in his support of the ultrasound bill and other abortion proposals that are likely to come to his desk. As a delegate, he introduced a bill, now law, that requires providers to receive written permission from a woman before performing an abortion.

‘Legitimate health issue’

Supporters of the ultrasound measure say it would provide crucial medical information to women seeking abortions, while opponents say it would subject women to unnecessary tests and invade their privacy.

“It’s a legitimate health issue,” said Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel (R-Winchester), who sponsored the legislation.

Vogel also said the measure “does not infringe on a woman’s decision, her autonomy.” She added: “It is not invasive. It does not attempt to infringe in any way on the doctor-patient relationship, and it absolutely does not infringe on her right to have an abortion.”

The Senate voted 21 to 18 in favor of the ultrasound bill, largely along party lines, with a pair of Democrats who oppose abortion rights voting with 19 Republicans. One Democrat was absent. Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield) voted against it.

Six states have similar laws, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit reproductive-health research center that gathers data on abortions in the United States.

‘Judgment of politicians’

“I’m appalled that some legislators are insisting on putting government regulation between a woman and her doctor,’’ said Sen. Janet D. Howell (D-Fairfax). The bill “holds the judgment of politicians above the wisdom of physicians.”

Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, agreed.“These anti-choice attacks are far-reaching and really out of touch with Virginians,’’ she said. “When Virginians understand the full impact of these bills, they do not support them and do not want lawmakers to interfere in women’s personal, private decisions regarding abortion and other reproductive-health care.’’

But supporters of the bills say are relieved that the General Assembly is finally taking their concerns about women’s health and safety seriously.

“We’re certainly pleased to have more pro-life members,’’ said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation. “We’re pleased to see we’re getting a fair hearing.”

The bill also would require women who live within 100 miles of their provider to wait at least 24 hours before having an abortion, except in emergencies. Those who live farther than 100 miles would have to wait two hours.

The Senate vote came after a lengthy and impassioned argument by Democrats. “I really don’t want to be in the position — as a clinician — where I say you need to have this diagnostic test done and the patient asks me, ‘Doctor, why? Why do I need that done?’ ” said Sen. Ralph Northam (D-Norfolk), a pediatric neurologist.

“And I would say, ‘Sir or ma’am, the reason is a group of politicians in Richmond are telling you, you have to have it done.’ That is not our place as a government.’’

In previous years, similar proposals easily passed the GOP-controlled House but died in the Senate, where Democrats and moderate Republicans had stacked committees to ensure the bills never reached the floor.

But GOP lawmakers altered the makeup of the committees this year.

The party-line vote in committee last week allowed the bill to come to the full Senate for a vote for the first time. Two Senate Democrats — Charles J. Colgan (D-Prince William) and Phillip P. Puckett (D-Russell) — oppose abortion rights.

McDonnell spokesman Jeff Caldwell said the governor supports the bill “as it provides women considering abortion to have additional information that can help them make an informed decision.’’

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