Va. Senate committee approves changes to abortion ultrasound bill

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Local,Virginia,Steve Contorno

A Virginia Senate panel on Thursday approved changes Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed to legislation requiring women to get an ultrasound before they are allowed to get an abortion.

The changes approved by the Senate Health and Education Committee would require women to undergo an abdominal ultrasound rather than the internal transvaginal ultrasound allowed under the original legislation.

The move distances Republicans from the more invasive procedure that sparked outrage at the Capitol and drew national attention. But it did little to appease Democrats, who now point out that the state will require women to endure an unnecessary and medically useless procedure before an abortion.

Most abortions take place in the early stages of a pregnancy, when the external “jelly on the belly” ultrasound isn’t helpful in determining gestational age of the fetus. Instead, doctors typically use an internal trasvaginal ultrasound in those first few weeks.

Previous versions of the bill that passed both chambers would have meant that hundreds of women would be subjected to a transvaginal ultrasound against their will, opponents said. But pressure from outside groups and mockery from left-leaning late-night comedians forced McDonnell and Republicans to back away from the measure and instead come up with the compromise.

Under the amended bill, women are required to receive an abdominal ultrasound before an abortion no matter the stage of the pregnancy. If that ultrasound is inconclusive, the doctor and the patient can decide together whether to also try the transvaginal route.

The House of Delegates passed McDonnell’s amendment Wednesday, and the bill’s House sponsor, Del. Kathy Byron, R-Lynchburg, gave her blessing to the changes, saying it was still “consistently pro-life.” However, the Senate sponsor, Sen. Jill Vogel, R-Winchester, was upset with the changes and threatened to kill it.

That may not matter. The Senate Health and Education Committee on Thursday approved an amended version of an indentical bill on a party-line vote, sending it to the full Senate for a vote.

McDonnell had originially said he would sign the ultrasound legislation if it reached his desk. But he reversed course and sought changes in the legislation, which antagonized both sides in the debate.

Victoria Cobb of the anti-abortion Family Foundation of Virginia said she was  “extremely disappointed” with McDonnell's reversal, but conceded “if an ultrasound bill does not ultimately pass the General Assembly this year it would be, in our opinion, a far worse outcome than the amendments that passed today.”

Opponents were far less reserved in their criticism, saying McDonnell's changes made matters worse. Women would still have to undergo a costly, unnecessary procedure before an abortion, Democrats said.

Abortion-rights advocates hoped that McDonnell would require doctors to offer an ultrasound but not mandate it.

"Neither common sense, medical fact, nor public opinion seems able to sway Republicans from enacting the most overreaching legislation possible,” Del. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond.

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