Only last week Virginia’s proposed legislation to require women seeking an abortion to first undergo an ultrasound seemed like it was on the fast track to becoming law. What proponents of the law did not realize when they began the process of legislating this contentious anti-abortion bill is the fact that the type of ultrasound needed during the first trimester of pregnancy, the period of time when 90 percent of all abortions take place, would necessarily have to be of the internal, and more invasive kind.
Experts Stir Debate
The downfall of the bill began several weeks ago, when on January 31st Senator Ralph Northam (D-Norfolk), a doctor who was a technical advisor for the bill, and Senator George L. Barker (D-Fairfax) who has a healthcare background and opposed the measure at the outset, brought the issue of the invasive nature of the required ultrasound up during the floor debate, but in a delicate manner.
The words they used to describe the ultrasound were “transvaginal” and “internal,” not the type of words that get people excited such as “vaginal penetration” and “state sponsored rape,” which eventually were the phrases used by opponents of the anti-abortion bill.
Barker said he was trying to be sensitive to the teenage pages sitting in the Senate, so he tried to be as sensitive with his language as possible.
Howell Proposes Amendment
Barker’s overly sensitive approach may have left the pages in the dark about what the bill would mean for women, but Senator Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) certainly understood quite well. As a way to focus on the invasive nature and gross personal intrusion the bill was proposing, Howell suggested an amendment to the bill requiring men to get a rectal exam before having certain types of meds prescribed for them.
“Prior to prescribing medication for erectile dysfunction, a physician shall perform a digital rectal examination and a cardiac stress test,” declared the amendment, which the Senate clerk read aloud on the floor.
The amendment was struck down, but the ultrasound bill passed. In a straying from his usual practice, the governor of Virginia, Robert F. McDonnell announced that day that he would sign the bill.
Media Gets in On the Action
But this was just the beginning of the bill’s demise. The media got wind of Howell’s floor amendment. Rachel Maddow of MSNBC ran a story on the issue, but failed to make it clear that the ultrasound being forced on women was anything but the “jelly-belly” kind which is done later during pregnancy.
“I don’t think they understood what kind of ultrasound they were talking about,” Howell said about the lawmakers. “I think they thought it was a mini-massage and not something approaching rape. People are squeamish about using words like ‘vagina,’ but in this case, it was necessary for people to understand how invasive this bill is.”
On the day that the House committee took up the bill, February 10th, Tarina Keene,executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, was distributing photos of vaginal ultrasound probes, and using clear language about what ‘transvaginal’ ultrasound really means. Just a few days later, when the bill came to the House for the vote, David Englin (D-Alexandria) was not afraid to say “vaginal probe.” Some Democrats compared the procedure to rape.
The measure still passed in the House, but more media, including some comedians, started to talk about the truth behind the ultrasound. Saturday Night Live, Jon Stewart of the Daily Show and others began to add their “withering two cents’ worth.”
Last Monday there were about 1,000 protestors demonstrating on Capital square clad in T-Shirts with messages such as “Virginia is for lovers, not probers.”
On the following Wednesday women’s rights supporters brought petitions with over 33,000 signatures against the ultrasound bill and the ‘personhood’ bill (which would have defined a fertilized egg as a person, and which has since been dropped.)
On Wednesday afternoon Governor McDonnell released a statement requesting legislators to amend the bill so that it would still require women to undergo and ultrasound, but not force women to have the vaginal type.
“No person should be directed to undergo an invasive procedure by the state, without their consent, as a precondition to another medical procedure,” McDonell said.