Virginia Republicans Probe Women’s Abortion Rights

“If you’ve been listening to the Republican candidates in the primary you know that each and every one of them would criminalise abortion and outlaw quite a few forms of birth control. Whether or not women can determine when and whether to have children is the single biggest element in whether we’re healthy or not, whether we’re educated or not, how long our life expectancy is, whether we can be active in the world or not.” Gloria Steinem.

The Virginia State Legislature – joining Texas, Oklahoma, and Iowa – passed some of the U.S’s most restrictive abortion bills earlier this year, mandating a coercive compulsory transvaginal probe for women seeking abortions.

Most women seeking to have a first trimester abortion would have been forced to have a “transvaginal procedure”, in which a probe would be inserted into the vagina, and then moved around until an ultrasound image is produced.

The bill declined to allow women a choice on the procedure. In fact, Republican legislators explicitly declined to vote for a proposed amendment that would have required women to sign a consent form. The procedure is, according to the medical experts, devoid of any tangible medical benefit. Critics claim its purpose is solely to deter women from having abortions.

Six other states have since passed laws requiring abortion providers to perform ultrasounds. While most of those states allow women to decline viewing the image, Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina require women to hear the provider’s detailed verbal description of the ultrasound and hear the foetal heartbeat before allowing an abortion.

One provision of the Virginia law would see a patient’s choice to view the ultrasound or listen to the heartbeat noted on her medical record. The Virginia measure would also require that the woman seeking an abortion be offered the chance to see the foetal image, and that a copy of the image to be kept with the woman’s medical record at the abortion facility for seven years.

Because of strident criticism by women right’s groups, the Virginia House of Delegates has revised the original version of the Republican-sponsored bill. The amendments, however, merely mean women can choose to receive an external, transabdominal ultrasound rather than the more invasive transvaginal ultrasound.

Transvaginal ultrasounds, according to the National Institutes of Health, involve the patient laying down on a table with knees bent and feet in holders called stirrups. The health care provider places the probe, called a transducer, into the vagina. The probe is covered with a condom and a gel, and the doctor can immediately see the picture on a nearby TV monitor.

The Governor and Republican members of the Virginia State Legislature should perhaps have consulted their own state’s statute, or the FBI, which defines rape this way: “The penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim.” This would also constitute rape under the Federal definition.

Interestingly, empirical evidence has found women forced to see ultrasound images opt to terminate, regardless. According to a new study by Tracy Weitz, Assistant Professor in the Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences at the University of California, San Francisco, “viewing an ultrasound is not an indication that a woman will cancel her scheduled procedure, regardless of what emotional response the sonogram elicits.”

In Arizona, due to a new law called the “Women’s Health and Safety Act”, signed on the 12 April this year by Republican Governor Jan Brewer, women are now legally pregnant two weeks before conception. Critics say the legislation is designed to reduce the amount of time a woman is allowed to legally have an abortion.

Planned Parenthood of Arizona lobbyist Michelle Steinberg called the law the country’s ‘most extreme piece of anti-abortion legislation’.

The legislation calculates gestational age starting with the first day of the last menstrual period rather than the date of conception. During the hearings on the bill, doctors said many women don’t discover their fetus has a severe or life-threatening problem until an ultrasound at about the 20th week.

The doctors — and several women who had faced this issue — testified that this law would arbitrarily remove the right for these women to have an abortion. The law becomes effective 90 days after the Legislature ends its session, which is likely to occur later this month. Feminist groups are remarking that women have been legislated into a state of perpetual pregnancy.

Other parts of the law include education in public schools prioritizing birth and adoption, and an order for the state health department to create and maintain a website showing alternatives to abortion and displaying images of fetuses. These provisions are in addition to the existing requirement of a notarized parental consent form for minors and a mandatory ultrasound screening within 24 hours of having an abortion.

The law “disregards women’s health in a way I’ve never seen before,” said Center for Reproductive Rights’ state advocacy counsel, Jordan Goldberg. “The women of Arizona can’t access medical treatment that other women can.”

Governor Brewer defended her decision in a press release, saying “this legislation is consistent with my strong track record of supporting common sense measures to protect the health of women and safeguard our most vulnerable population – the unborn.”

Amber Karanikolas

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