Several states are considering laws that would mandate an ultrasound before a woman has an abortion. Critics say the laws are unnecessary and intrusive, and the debate reached a fever pitch recently over a Virginia bill that would have required an invasive ultrasound procedure.
On Wednesday, Virginia's Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, asked legislators to back off and revise the House bill. Later that day, the Senate version of the bill was withdrawn by its sponsor. Now, a version of the bill that calls for a less invasive ultrasound is working its way through the Virginia General Assembly.
The Ultrasound Arguments
The original Virginia bill mandated that a transvaginal ultrasound procedure be performed before an abortion. Unlike abdominal ultrasounds, which are performed externally, transvaginal ultrasounds require doctors to use a probe. Some have called it medical rape; comedians Amy Poehler and Seth Meyers even took aim at the state on Saturday Night Live.
McDonnell changed his position after a protest outside the state capitol and criticism from moderates in his own party. In a statement released Wednesday, the governor said it's not the proper role for the state to mandate an invasive procedure and no one should have to undergo such a procedure without giving consent.
Some anti-abortion activists disagree. Olivia Gans of the Virginia Society for Human Life says seeing ultrasound images may get a woman to change her mind about having an abortion. She also says many doctors who provide abortions already perform transvaginal ultrasounds.
"I think it's unfortunate that the debate was hijacked," Gans says. "That's their standard of medical practice. So this bill was doing nothing more than recognizing and making solid for the woman's sake the opportunity to guarantee that was being done."
It's unclear how many doctors perform transvaginal ultrasounds or abdominal ultrasounds before abortions, but abortion rights activists say neither one should be mandated.
"I don't think that any of us want politicians interfering with our medical decisions or the government mandating what is medically necessary," says Laura Meyers, a chief executive officer at Planned Parenthood of Metropolitan Washington. "This has nothing to do with the health and safety of women; it has to do with increasing the barriers to abortion care for women, demeaning women and interfering with the patient/doctor relationship."
Seven states have passed laws that mandate ultrasounds before abortions, but the measures vary. After a court battle, one of the strictest laws recently went into effect in Texas. It requires doctors to show women ultrasound images and to describe them in detail.
Elizabeth Nash is with the Guttmacher Institute, a research organization that tracks legislation on sexual and reproductive health. She says more than a dozen states are considering some kind of ultrasound bill.
"We're seeing bills across a whole spectrum and we're seeing these bills across the country," she says. "We're seeing them in places like Alabama all the way up north to Michigan."
The Politics Of Ultrasound Bills
Virginia's ultrasound bill turned into an embarrassing political liability for McDonnell at a time many see him as a potential candidate for the GOP vice presidential nomination. Mark Rozell, who teaches public policy at George Mason University, says McDonnell was smart to back off of the stricter ultrasound bill.
"What Gov. McDonnell did was an enormous help to him and to his potential political future at the national level," he says.
According to Rozell, the governor has high ratings for being a bipartisan leader and the decision to ask for a more moderate bill secures his GOP base. The House version of the bill would require a less invasive abdominal ultrasound to determine the age of the fetus.
Other states trying to pass similar bills will also face some tough scrutiny, Rozell says.
"I think it all sends a strong message to other states that they will incur the same type of backlash if they move forward with such a proposed requirement," he says, "and it will attract a substantial amount of national political attention, as it did in Virginia."
But recent events in Virginia haven't changed the minds of people on either side of the abortion debate. Those who oppose abortion say the ultrasound bills are necessary, while abortion rights activists say they're politically motivated and show lawmakers are going too far.