Following news that Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) seems to have walked back his support for a GOP-sponsored bill that would require women to undergo a physically invasive transvaginal ultrasound procedure before having an abortion, members of the state legislature are speculating that Republicans are looking for a way to rewrite the bill to avoid having to fully back down on it.
“A lot of rumors are floating around this building that the Republicans are trying desperately to find some way out of this Pandora’s box,” said a top legislative staffer who works with Virginia’s Democrats. “I think the sponsors didn’t realize when this law passed in North Dakota that this was an intrusive ultrasound. But it would look terrible with their base if they backed down now and didn’t pass it.”
Democratic State Sen. Barbara Favola said she also heard Republicans may be caving under the pressure from women voters. “They’re backing off because they’re now hearing from women about it,” she said. “Yesterday we had hundreds of women line the walkway between General Assembly and the Capitol in silent protest.”
By Tuesday evening, McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin had said in a statement, “Our position is if the General Assembly passes this bill, the governor will review it in its final form at that time.”
While the Virginia General Assembly had postponed a vote on the bill two times before McDonnell made his comments, the bill has generated a firestorm of controversy because it would force doctors to perform an invasive, often medically unnecessary, procedure on women who may not even want it. Democratic Del. Charniele Herring said the law was “akin to rape,” and fellow Democrat David Englin pointed out that “object sexual penetration is a serious sex crime in Virginia.”
Jon Stewart also lampooned the law on “The Daily Show” Tuesday night, prompting former Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine to scold Republicans for turning the state into a “laughing stock” and “fodder for late-night comedy shows.”
“I don’t want Virginia to be known as a state carrying out an extreme and even comical campaign against women and their health care choices,” Kaine told reporters on Wednesday.
Republican Del. Kathy Byron, who sponsored the House version of the bill, and House Speaker William J. Howell, also a Republican, did not respond to calls for comment. But one House Republican staffer told HuffPost that it’s typical for the House to postpone a bill like this that may require extra debate time, and that nobody is backing down on it because it shouldn’t be controversial.
“Internal ultrasounds are standard medical procedure already for Planned Parenthood in an early pregnancy,” said the Republican staffer, who asked that her name not be used because she is not an official spokeswoman. “Unfortunately, not all doctors follow standard procedure. So this bill is helping to prevent against malpractice or a mother being rushed to the hospital with an ectopic pregnancy because the doctor didn’t do any imaging before the abortion.”
The staffer said Byron was aware of all the medical implications of the bill, including the fact that the procedure would be physically invasive, before she sponsored it.
But Sen. Favola said one solution Republicans have circulated to back away from the controversy is amending the bill’s language to state that doctors may perform an ultrasound on a woman if the procedure is deemed medically necessary. “It’s absolutely silly,” she said. “What are they doing? Do they just want to show they have power over women’s bodies? If an ultrasound is medically needed, the doctor is already doing it. This is the most demeaning piece of legislation you could come up with.”
Seven other states, including North Dakota and Texas, already have mandatory ultrasound laws in some form on the books. A federal district judge in Texas initially blocked a law there that requires doctors to describe an ultrasound in detail and play the fetal heartbeat to a woman seeking an abortion. But a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in January overruled that decision and allowed the law to go into effect.
The House of Delegates is expected to vote on the bill on Wednesday afternoon. Even if it passes the GOP-dominated House, Gov. McDonnell has not committed to signing it.