The Virginia General Assembly is moving forward with a watered-down version of a controversial abortion bill, despite attracting national ire and ridicule because it would have required a woman to have an ultrasound probe inserted into her vagina before undergoing an abortion.
In the new version of the bill, doctors would still have to perform an external ultrasound, but women would be allowed to refuse the more invasive procedure, though doctors must still offer to perform it.
The national attention has come as an embarrassment to Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell, who has been touted as a possible GOP vice presidential nominee, and has found Republicans embroiled in another fight over women's healthcare.
Despite the backtracking in Virginia, Mississippi and Pennsylvania are pushing forward with what critics describe as similar measures. And a bill that passed the Alabama Senate health committee Thursday explicitly calls for the use of vaginal ultrasounds.
At issue is a requirement that the results of the examination show a fetus' heartbeat and its organs. To provide such detail in the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy — when the majority of abortions are performed — would often require the use of an invasive technique, known as a transvaginal ultrasound.
McDonnell withdrew his support for the legislation, but at an event in Washington on Friday he said he backs the reworded version. "I believe the bill will pass," he said. "Virginia will have a strong women's right-to-know bill, to provide the information necessary to make a fully informed decision."
After explaining his position on the abortion bill, McDonnell added that he wants to focus on the economy and jobs. "I proposed about 153 bills this year in the General Assembly. You know how many are on social issues? None," he said.
Virginia is a key state in the November election — one that President Obama carried in 2008 but which Republicans hope to steal away this year. The swing voters in the state tend to be moderate residents of the northern Virginia suburbs, the sort of voters who are apt to dislike the image of Republican legislators focusing on abortion — and seeming to demand that women undergo an intrusive medical procedure.
"It could drag them down a bit, and every little bit helps — or hurts — in a state which is that close," said Ruy Teixeira, a political analyst at the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress.
Attention to the Virginia legislation, which was introduced to the House in January, was slow to build. Southern manners and a concern for the sensitivities of 13- and 14-year-old Senate pages meant legislators were wary of spelling out how a transvaginal ultrasound is performed. In an attempt to push home the implications of the bill, Democratic Sen. Janet Howell introduced an amendment that would require men to have a "digital rectal examination" before being prescribed medicine for erectile dysfunction. It failed.
But when national media latched on to the story this week, they showed no such bashfulness.
Speaking over an image of the probe, Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show," described the procedure in detail. "On the plus side," he added, in reference to a provision in the Virginia measure that lets women decline to view the ultrasound image, "during the entire wand-forcibly-inserted-in-your-most-private-area experience, you still have complete and total control over what direction your head is turned."
Abortion rights activists are continuing to fight the Virginia legislation. Describing the bill as an "abomination" in any form, Howell said she plans to introduce "significant" amendments. Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said the organization will be lobbying senators over the weekend, urging them to vote against the measure. Keene said that she worries doctors will press women to have the invasive ultrasounds, even if they are not required to, and that performing external ultrasounds so early in a pregnancy is a waste.
"You're mandating a worthless and senseless procedure to be done on a woman," she said. "The full intention of this bill is to put up barriers to women accessing abortion — to shame her and to change her mind."
Virginia has had a law on its books since 2001 requiring doctors to provide women with detailed information before they have an abortion. The first attempt to introduce ultrasounds into the process in Virginia was made in 2007. Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana and Texas all require women to have an ultrasound prior to having an abortion. The proposed legislation in Alabama would strengthen that requirement.
Times staff writer Richard Fausset in Atlanta contributed to this report.