RICHMOND — The Virginia Senate on Wednesday approved a bill requiring women to undergo ultrasound imaging before they have an abortion - the most aggressive measure on reproductive rights that has cleared the upper chamber thus far in the 2012 session.
The measure passed 21-18, with two Democrats voting for the bill and one Republican opposing it.
Proponents argue that the bill simply supplements the state's informed-consent laws and helps determine the gestational age of the baby, while opponents say it's an unnecessary intrusion into what should be a personal medical decision. Women would have the opportunity to view the ultrasound, but would not be required to do so.
"It would merely bring in line the current informed-consent rules with current reproductive technology," said Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, Fauquier Republican and the bill's sponsor. "It is not invasive. It does not intend to infringe in any way on the doctor-patient relationship. It doesn't compel you to see the results. It just offers that option to provide informed consent."
Sen. Ralph S. Northam, Norfolk Democrat, said the last thing the General Assembly needs to be doing is telling physicians how to practice medicine.
"I teach medical ethics to students, to residents," said Mr. Northam, a children's neurologist. "Telling a patient they need to have a procedure against their will - I would suggest to them that it's unethical. It is allowing the government to get in the lives of providers, such as myself."
The debate took a somewhat satirical turn Monday, when Sen. Janet D. Howell, Fairfax Democrat, unsuccessfully tried to attach an amendment to the bill that would require men to undergo a cardiac stress test and rectal examination before receiving prescription drugs for erectile dysfunction.
"If conservatives insist on putting government regulation in between a woman and her doctor, I want to take a stand," she said. "We need some gender equity here."
But Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican who sponsored such a measure a decade ago while in the House of Delegates, said the bill is simple common sense.
"I think it gives full information," he said this week on WTOP Radio's "Ask the Governor" program. "An ultrasound - it's modern technology, the costs have been driven down. To be able to have that information before making what most people would say is a very important, serious, life-changing decision, I think is appropriate."
Delegate Kathy J. Byron, Campbell Republican, has filed a similar bill in the House.
According to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit reproductive health research center, state lawmakers added a record 92 restrictions on abortion nationwide in 2011, which ranged from bans on most abortions after 20 weeks of gestation to changes in abortion-clinic regulations.
Last year, five states - Alabama, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas and Oklahoma - joined Nebraska by passing laws that ban abortion after 20 weeks, on the premise that fetuses can feel pain. Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, vetoed similar legislation, calling the idea that a fetus can feel pain at that point a "spurious assertion." Nebraska approved the first "fetal pain" law in 2010.
Virginia lawmakers, too, are proposing their share of abortion bills this year, including a "fetal pain" measure. The state also approved temporary regulations last year to regulate abortion clinics like hospitals, and a public comment period is currently under way for developing permanent ones.
Voters in Mississippi rejected a so-called "personhood" bill last November that would define life as beginning at conception. Virginia Delegate Robert G. Marshall, Prince William Republican, has introduced such legislation this year.
Democrats in Virginia have accused their GOP counterparts of honing their sights on such socially conservative legislation while the state's two-year, $85 billion budget and economic picture loom as other top priorities.
Mr. McDonnell, though, downplayed the number of bills that have been introduced, saying that Republicans are still following through on issues they campaigned on, such as job growth and economic development.
"Now listen, I know the Democrats are trying to make hay, unfortunately, out of some socially conservative bills, but ... these are bills that get put in every year," he said. "The question is, what's actually going to pass. I think Republicans - you wouldn't expect any less than them sticking to their guns and doing things that they said they're going to do. So, I think we are focusing on the big things that affect Virginia, which is jobs, taxes, regulation, government reform ... that's what we're working [on]."
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