Body Politics

Today, after a week of media coverage of a bill mandating that women seeking abortion undergo medically unnecessary state-sanctioned trans-vaginal ultrasounds, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell is now backing down. A little.

Over the past year, Virginia has been a “leader” in passing laws to harass and intimidate abortion providers and patients.  Recently, for example, and despite widespread condemnation by the public health and medical communities, McDonnell signed into law regulations for clinics providing abortion care intended to do nothing other than shut them down. In this instance, medical evidence meant… well… nothing to him.

Now, however, angling for a role as Vice President in the 2012 election, watching the backlash against the far right’s efforts to politicize women’s health, and after a week of intense media scrutiny of a plan to mandate trans-vaginal ultrasounds (including by RH Reality Check) medical evidence has suddenly become very, very important to the governor.

In a statement today, the governor said:

“This session, the General Assembly is now considering amending [an] informed consent statute to include a requirement that any woman seeking an abortion receive an ultrasound in order to establish the gestational age for appropriate medical purposes, and to offer a woman the opportunity to voluntarily review that ultrasound prior to giving her legal informed consent to abortion.

Over the past days I have discussed the specific language of the proposed legislation with other governors, physicians, attorneys, legislators, advocacy groups, and citizens. It is apparent that several amendments to the proposed legislation are needed to address various medical and legal issues which have arisen. It is clear that in the majority of cases, a routine external, transabdominal ultrasound is sufficient to meet the bills stated purpose, that is, to determine gestational age. I have come to understand that the medical practice and standard of care currently guide physicians to use other procedures to find the gestational age of the child, when abdominal ultrasounds cannot do so. Determining gestational age is essential for legal reasons, to know the trimester of the pregnancy in order to comply with the law, and for medical reasons as well.”

This, he continues:

“…having looked at the current proposal, I believe there is no need to direct by statute that further invasive ultrasound procedures be done. Mandating an invasive procedure in order to give informed consent is not a proper role for the state. No person should be directed to undergo an invasive procedure by the state, without their consent, as a precondition to another medical procedure.”

Just read this sentence again:

I have come to understand that the medical practice and standard of care currently guide physicians to use other procedures to find the gestational age of the child, when abdominal ultrasounds cannot do so.

Translation? “I have ignored the evidence to such an extent and painted myself so far into a corner that I now need to rely on medical evidence I otherwise love to ignore to save my own ass.”

Yes, Governor… providers actually do adhere to “medical practices and standards of care in providing reproductive health services.”

What took you so long?

Still, while welcome news, the governor does not go nearly far enough.

He is still recommending to the General Assembly “a series of amendments to this bill.”

“I am requesting that the General Assembly amend this bill to explicitly state that no woman in Virginia will have to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound involuntarily. I am asking the General Assembly to state in this legislation that only a transabdominal, or external, ultrasound will be required to satisfy the requirements to determine gestational age. Should a doctor determine that another form of ultrasound may be necessary to provide the necessary images and information that will be an issue for the doctor and the patient. The government will have no role in that medical decision.”

The way I read it, he’s still mandating ultrasounds, if not trans-vaginal ones. He is still using law to address a medical and public health issue long settled by experts. He is still putting up obstacles to women making decisions about their lives and their bodies, and their families.

And he still has laws on the books that contravene his new-found belief in medical standards of care and prevailing medical practices.

In short, he’s still coercing women and providers. He’s just taken the ultrasound wand “out of the picture.”

Editor's Note: This article was originally published February 22, 2012, at RH Reality Check. Photo by Frmir via Wikimedia Commons.
Jodi Jacobson

Jodi Jacobson

Jodi L. Jacobson is a long-time leader in the health and development community and an advocate with extensive experience in public health, gender equity, human rights, environment and demographic issues. She is currently Editor-in-Chief of RH Reality Check. In September 2011, Ms. Jacobson was awarded the "Preserving Core Values in Science" Award by the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals. Previously, Ms. Jacobson was the Director of Advocacy at American Jewish World Service, where she established a new department, leading the organization’s efforts to mobilize the American Jewish community toward ending the genocide in Darfur, fighting global AIDS, ensuring access to quality basic education worldwide, addressing the global food crisis, and promoting global debt relief and effective anti-poverty policies, among other issues. From 1994 to 2007, Jodi served as founder and Executive Director of the Center for Health and Gender Equity (CHANGE) (est. 1994), an organization that monitors and seeks to promote accountability of US international policy to women’s reproductive and sexual health and rights.