Update: February 22, 9:15 AM.
Virginia legislators are considering two bills that would create harsh restrictions on abortions. One of the measures, Democrats say, is “akin to rape.” But there are signs that some Republicans may be having second thoughts.A personhood bill passed out of the Virignia state House by a vote of 66-32 last week, and “provides that unborn children at every stage of development enjoy all the rights, privileges, and immunities available to other persons, citizens, and residents of the Commonwealth.” Introduced by Republican Delegate Bob Marshall (he of the health care reform is “economic rape” comment), the bill is now in the Senate Education and Health Committee, where Republicans hold a one-vote majority.
Personhood laws, aside from limiting abortions, also could impact women’s access to birth control, and place limits on procedures like in vitro fertilization. Tarina Keene, Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, said in a statement that the implications could be even more far-reaching. “With the word ‘person’ appearing more than 25,000 times in the Virginia code, single-minded legislators are about to run this Commonwealth off a cliff as well as eradicating women’s health and rights.”
The second bill would require women to have an invasive procedure called a transvaginal or pelvic ultrasound before they could get an abortion, as part of “informed consent.” Additionally, the bill requires a 24-hour waiting period after the procedure, in addition to one already mandated by the state. In other words, if the bill passed there would be a waiting period, followed by the ultrasound, followed by a waiting period, before a woman could get an abortion.
Keene told TPM that this “could actually require three trips to the doctor’s office” for an abortion. “It is setting up another barrier that way.” She added that the bill is “particularly egregious in that they don’t even have an exception for rape and incest victims.”
Kathy Byron, the Republican Delegate who sponsored the bill, explained on the House floor: “This may be the most important decision that she ever makes in her life. A tough decision. And we determined over a decade ago that we were going to ensure that a woman has a right to have all the information available to her before making that decision.”
Democrats, however, have been playing up the fact that the procedure could amount to an actual criminal act. David Englin, a Democrat who opposes the bill, argued: “Object sexual penetration is a serious sex crime in Virginia. It is very difficult to look at the bill and look at the OSP statute together and think that you are not asking doctors to commit a sex crime.”
“Consent is a key element in the criminal statute, and there is no consent required in the ultrasound statute,” he said.
Charniele Herring, another Democrat, said: “What’s before us is akin to rape. The bill requires a transvaginal ultrasound and for that to happen without any appropriate medical purpose. The OSP that says if you insert something in somebody without their consent or without a bona fide medical purpose it is a criminal act. The proponents of the bill have not come up with a legitimate medical purpose.”
So far the ultrasound bill has passed out of the state Senate by a vote of 21-18 — but the House delayed a vote on it for the second time on Tuesday. Though it was initially expected to pass the Republican-controlled chamber, with Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) saying he would sign it, there is some indication that Republicans are having second thoughts.
For one thing, the polls are not on their side. A recent poll in Virginia by Christopher Newport University/Richmond Times-Dispatch found that 55% of Virginia voters polled oppose the ultrasound measure, compared with 36% who support it.
Opponents of the bill flocked to Richmond on Monday to protest, and the Associated Press reports that police estimated the crowd to be about 1000-1500 people. This came after almost 25,000 others signed a petition in opposition to the personhood amendment.
For another thing, according to Keene, of NARAL, the recent media attention might be making legislators a little uneasy. There’s “definitely some stuff going on behind the scenes,” Keene told TPM. “They seem to be squirming a little bit.”
According to the Virginian-Pilot: “Two legislators — one a conservative Republican — speaking today on the condition of anonymity said one idea officials have discussed is making the ultrasound legislation optional rather than mandatory.”
And the Washington Post reports that McDonnell may also be having doubts. Members of the House of Delegates reportedly met with McDonnell staffers Tuesday night to discuss a possible compromise, according to two anonymous Post sources. But McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin was still cagey about it 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,” he said.
Keene said she has also heard that “there might be an amendment in the works to take the mandate away,” so that the bill would “not have the impact that it has right now.”
“I’m feeling more hopeful than I was at the opening day of session when I thought all hope was lost,” she said.