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Vaginal Ultrasound Bills A Smokescreen, Say Pro-Choice Groups

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In the past week, Alabama and Virginia have faced scrutiny for bills that would require a woman seeking an abortion to undergo an ultrasound before she can receive it.

The one particularly contentious point has been that these bills require a woman to receive whichever type of ultrasound provides the best picture of the fetus -- which, since women typically get abortions early on in the pregnancy, means that the most effective ultrasound is transvaginal, an invasive procedure that opponents of the measure decried as "state-sponsored rape."

Amid public outcry and media scrutiny, lawmakers in Alabama and Virginia have backtracked, and instead looked to pass ultrasound bills in which a transvaginal ultrasound is optional.

Virginia's new bill has had an easier time of it. The amended version of the ultrasound bill easily passed through the state House last week, and Tuesday the Senate passed it by a 21-19 vote.

But though this new iteration of the bill seems comparatively tolerable -- and has been heralded as a compromise by lawmakers like Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) -- pro-choice groups don't see much of a distinction, and say that people should not be fooled by the supposedly softer language.

Elizabeth Nash, a Public Policy Associate for the Guttmacher Institute, told TPM that there's "definitely concern" that "the huge outcry around vaginal ultrasound is masking other provisions in the bill that are just as terrible."

For example, Nash said, Virginia's bill also mandates that a woman make multiple trips to the doctor before she can get an abortion. The new law requires a 24-hour waiting period after the ultrasound, in addition to the one already mandated by the state before an abortion to begin with. The law also requires that the doctor give a detailed verbal description of the image or show it to the woman. "All of these requirements are pretty awful, and they are getting lost in the shuffle in the outrage over the vaginal ultrasound," Nash said.

"There is a fear that if you think of [ultrasound bills] as a continuum -- that is to offer the woman the ultrasound is one side of it, and the [mandatory] vaginal ultrasound is the other side of it, a plain old ultrasound is in the middle," she said.

But, Nash said, there was a time a few years ago when a mandated transabdominal ultrasound was not seen in such an agreeable light. When South Carolina was considering this type of legislation, the "people rebelled," and it was ultimately three years before they could pass anything. In the end, South Carolina wound up with a law that only requires that if the ultrasound is performed as part of the preparation for an abortion, the doctor must offer the woman the chance to look at it.

Nash also pointed out that though there is new attention on the issue of a whether an ultrasound is transvaginal, it's not necessarily a new consequence of these types of requirements. Oklahoma and North Carolina have both passed laws that amount to the same thing, but both laws are enjoined pending the outcome of court cases looking to overturn them. However, Nash said, Texas has this kind of law already on the books.

"There's been a lot of movement in what the requirements are for ultrasounds in the past couple years, and now that we're seeing this recognition that you have to require a vaginal ultrasound, perhaps we'll step back from that kind of requirement," she said.

Vicki Saporta, President and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, the professional association of abortion practitioners, agreed that ultimately people are "totally missing the big picture" when it comes to these ultrasound bills. "Really the abdominal versus transvaginal ultrasound issue is a distraction, one that has gotten a lot of publicity. But I think that the bill that was passed in Virginia is every bit as bad as what was being introduced there last week. I don't think that the few changes they made make it any less burdensome for women seeking abortions."

"What the public should be uncomfortable about is not the specific kind of ultrasound, but that the government is mandating medical procedures," she said.

"These bills are forcing doctors to do medically unnecessary procedures, and are totally politically motivated," Saporta continued. "An ultrasound is not necessary in the first trimester, yet you have many states trying to pass mandatory ultrasound bills in order to make it more difficult for women to access abortions." Alabama, for example, is one of 11 states that introduced ultrasound bills this year, when in fact they already had an ultrasound law on the books.

"They're just trying to make it more restrictive," Saporta said.

Tarina Keene, Executive Director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, told TPM that the amended bill is "not at all" a victory, however McDonnell chooses to spin it. "It had nothing to do with women's health or determining gestational age. It had everything to do with the government shaming women and trying to put up yet another roadblock to accessing their constitutional rights as well as handing a 'win' to right-wing advocacy groups to shore up their conservative credentials."

And Donna Crane, the Policy Director for NARAL, told TPM that they "remain as opposed to that bill as we were in from the beginning" because it mandates that a woman go through an unnecessary medical procedure. "We do not make a specific distinction as to what type of procedure is being forced on her," she said.