Va. Lawmakers Could Approve Ultrasound Bill This Week; Measure Sparks Protests at Capitol

February 21, 2012 — The Virginia House of Delegates as early as Tuesday could give final approval to a measure (HB 462) that would require a woman seeking abortion care to first receive an ultrasound and have the opportunity to view the image, the New York Times reports. The state Senate has already approved the bill (Tavernise/Eckholm, New York Times, 2/20).

Lawmakers on Monday delayed a final vote on the bill, as hundreds of abortion-rights advocates stood in silent protest outside the Capitol building on Monday, the Washington Post's "Virginia Politics" reports (Kumar/Vozzella, "Virginia Politics," Washington Post, 2/20). Capitol and state police officers estimated that there were more than 1,000 protesters, most of whom were women, lining the sidewalks that lawmakers walked through on Monday to enter the General Assembly Building, according to the AP/Fox News (AP/Fox News, 2/20).

Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) initially voiced support for the legislation, but in the wake of "intense public attention" a spokesperson this weekend indicated that his stance was less concrete. "If the bill passes, he will review it, in its final form, at that time," spokesperson Martin Tucker said.

Some observers said the governor's shift in tone indicates that he might change the bill before signing it, which is permitted under Virginia law. According to the Times, McDonnell is a possible candidate for vice president on a Republican ticket and "could be calculating how the bill will be perceived by a national audience" (New York Times, 2/20).

Implications of Ultrasound Bills in Texas, Virginia

The Virginia ultrasound legislation is not likely to have a significant effect on the "legal landscape of abortion rights" because it does not test a new type of restriction; however, a more sweeping Texas ultrasound law could have national significance, according to the Washington Post's "Wonkblog" (Kliff, "Wonkblog," Washington Post, 2/18). The Texas law requires doctors to perform an ultrasound, describe the fetus and give the woman the option of hearing the fetal heartbeat before providing abortion care (Women's Health Policy Report, 2/7).

A lower court in Texas ruled that the law violates care providers' rights to free speech by dictating what they must say; however, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision and the law stands. According to "Wonkblog," the law "could conceivably work its way up to the Supreme Court, possibly setting a new precedent regarding which state abortion restrictions are constitutional under Roe v. Wade" ("Wonkblog," Washington Post, 2/18).

Effects of the Texas Ultrasound Bill

Many physicians say enforcement of the Texas ultrasound bill has made scheduling appointments more complicated, the AP/San Angelo Standard-Times reports. Clinic administrators say they have not seen a change in the number of women who return after the 24-hour waiting period. While most women do not have significant reactions to the ultrasound image and description, many are frustrated by having to make multiple appointments, the administrators noted.

Amy Hagstrom Miller, president and chief executive of Whole Woman's Health, said some patients have had to schedule the procedure up to 14 days after their initial visit, and some clinics have had to hire more staff members to handle the extra appointments. She said the law is "about shaming women. It's about delaying abortions. It's about making abortion more difficult to obtain" (Stengle, AP/San Angelo Standard-Times, 2/18).

Va. Senate Panel Advances Bill To Bar Medicaid Coverage for Certain Abortion Services

In related news, the Virginia Senate Education and Health Committee on Thursday approved a bill (HB 62) that would prohibit the use of state Medicaid funds for abortion services in cases of severe fetal anomaly, the AP/Washington Post reports. The bill, sponsored by Delegate Mark Cole (R), was approved 8-7 on a party line vote. It now advances to the Senate Finance Committee.

Abortion-rights opponents and religious groups, including the Virginia Roman Catholic Diocese, support the bill. Cole argued that the measure is needed to ensure that state residents who oppose abortion do not fund the procedure through their tax dollars.

Opponents of the bill argued that it would eliminate options for low-income women carrying fetuses with severe abnormalities, requiring them to continue pregnancies even if the infant would not survive. Sen. Ralph Northam (D), a physician, said the measure would deny low-income women the ability to end pregnancies in cases of "gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity or mental deficiency" and force them to bear the costs of caring for a child with special needs.

In response to Northam's concerns, the committee amended the bill so that extremely disabled children born to women who are denied state funding for abortion services would be placed at the top of the waiting list for public assistance.

Opponents of the bill also noted that the state spends a relatively small amount of money on abortion care. A state analysis found that the Department of Health funded 10 abortion procedures in the fiscal year ending on June 30, at a total cost of $2,784 (AP/Washington Post, 2/16).