Va. Republicans block ultrasound repeal


Dr. Wendy Klein, front center, and Dr. Sterling Ransone, right, from Deltaville, Va., wait to testify during a meeting of the Senate Health Education and Welfare committee at the Capitol Thursday, Jan. 17, 2013 in Richmond, Va. (Steve Helber/AP)
January 17, 2013

Senate Republicans on Thursday thwarted an effort by Democrats to repeal a law to require women to undergo an ultrasound before getting an abortion.

Republicans also rejected legislation that would have rolled back new regulations requiring abortion clinics to meet hospital-style building standards.

But one Republican crossed party lines to kill a bill intended to prohibit Medicaid funding for certain abortions. That measure would have prevented the use of tax dollars to pay for abortions for low-income women carrying fetuses with severe mental or physical disabilities.

The Senate Committee on Education and Health voted strictly along party lines to reject two bills aimed at abolishing the ultrasound law passed last year. It was the most contentious legislation of the 2012 General Assembly session.

As originally proposed last year, the bill would have required most women to undergo a vaginal ultrasound before an abortion. The legislation had not specifically mandated the type of ultrasound; it required that an ultrasound be performed and that the patient be offered a view of the image. But vaginal ultrasounds are typically used in the early stages of pregnancy, when most abortions are performed, because the fetus is so small that the external ultrasound does not yield a good image.

After an uproar over the invasive nature of the vaginal ultrasound, the 2012 bill was amended to specify that the ultrasound be external.

The change was meant to soften the legislation, but critics complained that as amended, it mandates a test that serves no medical purpose. Doctors routinely call for vaginal ultrasounds before performing abortions, people on both sides of the issue say. Now they must also order an external ultrasound to comply with the law.

Sens. Ralph S. Northam (D-Norfolk) and Barbara A. Favola (D-Arlington) proposed two bills meant to change that situation. One would have would have removed the requirement that a woman undergo a “transabdominal ultrasound” before an abortion. The other would have prohibited the commonwealth from mandating ultrasounds for “nonmedical reasons.”

Both failed in 8 to 7 votes after supporters of the 2012 law, including the Family Foundation of Virginia and representatives of Catholic and Baptist groups, said that the ultrasound helps women make an informed decision about whether to continue their pregnancies.

The committee also shot down two bills, proposed by Sen. Mark Herring (D-Loudoun), aimed at lifting strict building standards on abortion clinics. The rules, approved by the General Assembly two years ago but still being implemented, will require clinics to meet the same building standards as outpatient surgical centers. They call for costly physical renovations, such as widening hallways and doorways, that some clinic officials said could put them out of business. Antiabortion activists said the regulations will make clinics safer for women.

The committee sided with abortion rights groups on one bill, which would have prohibited Medicaid funds from being used to pay for abortions for women carrying fetuses with severe disabilities. The state paid for abortions in seven of those cases last year, according to Northam, a pediatric neurologist.

Sen. Thomas A. Garrett, Jr. (R-Louisa), said his bill would not prohibit anyone from terminating such a pregnancy, but simply prevent taxpayer money from being used to do so. Parents who had adopted children with severe disabilities testified in favor of the bill, including one who helped his daughter, born without arms or legs, up to the podium in a wheelchair.

“Doctors can be wrong. Children can beat odds,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia.

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said the funds should be available in severe cases, such as when the central part of the brain is missing and the fetus has no chance of surviving outside the womb.

“You’re telling me because they don’t have money, too bad, carry it to full term?” he said.

Sen. Harry B. Blevins (R-Chesapeake) sided with Democrats on that bill, which was defeated 8 to 7.

Laura Vozzella covers Virginia politics for The Washington Post.
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