February 29, 2012

VIRGINIA’S GENERAL ASSEMBLY, 82 percent of whose members are men and 3 percent of whose members are physicians, has taken upon itself the task of ordering up procedures between women and their doctors — specifically, ultrasounds for women seeking abortions.

The purpose of this exercise in coercion is to discourage women from ending their pregnancies. Forced on the legislature by anti-abortion lawmakers, nearly all of them Republicans, it is a prime example of ideology, nanny-state paternalism and arrogance trumping plain good sense.

Above all, the Virginia legislation is supremely pointless. It substitutes a mandate for a doctor’s judgment, so that the government will require ultrasounds even though they already take place in most instances. The main difference is that the state will now make no allowance for a doctor’s discretion. And because the legislation mandates a waiting period of two to 24 hours between an ultrasound and an abortion, women will be hit with needless child-care costs and forced to take days off work.

Amid a firestorm of national criticism, Gov. Robert F. McDonnell prodded fellow Republicans in Richmond to back off their original version of the legislation, which would have required women seeking abortions to undergo transvaginal ultrasounds whether or not they consented. The watered-down version of the bill instead mandates abdominal ultrasounds.

Abdominal ultrasounds — the “jelly on the belly” version — are less invasive than vaginal probes. But they are also all but useless in detecting fetal images or even a heartbeat in most pregnancies during the first trimester, when some 90 percent or more of abortions are performed.

When doctors elect to do ultrasounds that early in a pregnancy, they are generally the transvaginal variety. But it’s critical that they be done consensually, within the privacy of a doctor’s relationship with a woman seeking an abortion — not as the result of meddlesome state intrusion.

Mr. McDonnell, a longtime abortion opponent, defended his support of the measure, saying, “I think women have the right to know all of the medical information before they make a very important choice.” Of course, they already have such a right; this legislation is about mandates, not rights. And the fact is that the abdominal ultrasounds required by the bill will not provide any useful information for the overwhelming majority of women seeking abortions.

“I might as well put the ultrasound probe on this bottle of Gatorade,” said state Sen. Ralph S. Northam, a Norfolk Democrat and one of just four doctors in the General Assembly. “I’m going to see just as much.”

Mr. McDonnell has complained that the media have cooked up the furor surrounding the ultrasound bill in Virginia while ignoring the vast majority of legislation not dealing with social issues. In fact, he himself warned Republicans, who now control both houses of the legislature, against overreaching. They ignored his advice and now, by signing the ultrasound bill, he, too, is ignoring it.