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Church State Issues

Ultra-creepy new ultrasound laws are the shame of the ultra-right

Feb 17, 2012

By: Eric Zorn

Chicago Tribune

I suspect laws like these are a violation of the separation of Church and State principle by attempting to force woman into canceling their abortions.

The party that claims to champion small government is at it again.

This month Republican majorities in both chambers in Virginia's Legislature passed one of the strictest mandatory pre-abortion ultrasound bills in the nation — a measure that's certain to require women seeking early-stage abortions to submit to being vaginally penetrated by a condom-covered electronic probe before the abortion is allowed to proceed.

The procedure is called a "transvaginal ultrasound," and it's the best and sometimes only way in the first stages of pregnancy for physicians to obtain images that "contain the dimensions of the fetus, and accurately portray the presence of external members and internal organs of the fetus," as the bill requires.

Such ultrasounds are common medical procedures. But make no mistake. The proposed regulation, which Republican Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell previously indicated he will sign if, as expected, legislators send a final version to his desk next week, has nothing to do with the practice of medicine.

It's designed to attempt to confront women seeking abortions with fetal images and the sounds of fetal heartbeats in hopes that they'll change their minds about going through with the procedure. That's why the law specifies that the ultrasound be performed "at least two hours before the performance of an abortion," and that the results be offered to the woman before she signs off on going through with it.

The idea of battling abortion via imagery has been around since the first protester shook the first bloody-fetus sign at a woman entering an abortion clinic. Bringing this tactic indoors — into the medical office itself — under the rubric of "informed consent" has been the brainchild of abortion-rights foes whose efforts to outlaw the procedure altogether have been blocked by the courts and public opinion.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, seven states now mandate that abortion providers perform ultrasounds on every patient and offer them the opportunity to view the images. (Current laws .pdf -- Guttmacher Institute)

Elizabeth Nash, the public policy associate at Guttmacher who follows this issue, said that what's different about the legislation in Virginia and a similar Republican-backed law in Texas (.pdf) that went into effect last month is the specificity of the quality and detail of the images that must be obtained.

In the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, when nearly 90 percent of abortions are performed, the "jelly-on-the-belly" ultrasound in which an imaging wand is moved over the stomach of a pregnant woman usually doesn't give enough information to satisfy the stricter laws, Nash said.

Illinois has no such law. The so-called Ultrasound Opportunity Act filed last month in Springfield requires only that a woman seeking an abortion be offered the opportunity to receive an informational ultrasound. A nearly identical bill failed to advance in the General Assembly last year.

The must-offer laws are patronizing. They presume that women don't understand an abortion and aren't capable of consulting with their doctors and learning what they feel they need to know, but at least they give the woman the chance to say no.

But must-perform laws are offensive. In their strictest form, they stand to coerce women into subjecting themselves to a medically unnecessary penetration of their sexual organs simply in order to gain access to a legal procedure.

To highlight for her male colleagues just how personal and invasive this gratuitous requirement is, Democratic Virginia state Sen. Janet Howell introduced an amendment to the bill during last month's debate that would have forced men seeking prescriptions for erectile dysfunction medication to submit to digital rectal exams.

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Executive Director Tarina Keene said Thursday that she's holding out hope that as indignation about the proposal grows nationwide, lawmakers will back down or McDonnell, whose vice presidential aspirations are no secret, will decide he doesn't want to affix his signature to compulsory vaginal probes after all.

As the 2012 political races heat up, Republicans are going to have a hard time selling themselves as the party that wants to get government off the backs of the people while simultaneously advancing the appalling idea that government should be able to insert itself into the genitals of women.