What's Different About Virginia's Ultrasound Bill?

Virginia's ultrasound bill caused an uproar, but there are similar bills in seven other states. Here's why Virginia hit a nerve.

Across the country, local legislators regularly cast votes to restrict abortions in their states. Most Americans never hear about it. But this week, Virginia's latest attempt to prevent women from securing abortions crashed and burned on the national stage—this time, over the issue of "vaginal probing." The state's "informed consent" bill mandated that all women seeking abortions would first have to undergo an ultrasound; practically, it meant that women in the first 12 weeks of their pregnancies would be forced to have a probe inserted in their vagina, then moved around in there until the doctor could produce an ultrasound image of a fetus.

As the bill moved through the Virginia legislature, the national news media began to wise up to these particulars, sparking outrage among pro-choice activists, progressive voters, and regular people. Journalists and politicians alike began to call it "state-mandated rape." Meghan McCain told Rachel Maddow that her friends "who are not into politics" have been texting her, wondering what this "vaginal probing" really means.

Yesterday afternoon, Governor Bob McDonnell withdrew his support for the bill's most invasive language, stating that "[m]andating an invasive procedure in order to give informed consent is not a proper role for the state." The Virginia legislature passed a milder version of the bill a few hours later. The change wasn't a complete reversal; women won't have to be vaginally penetrated to receive an abortion, but they'll still be subject to an external ultrasound against their will. McDonnell has his sights set on the vice-presidential nomination, which means he needs to toe the party line. Still, the fact remains that a media firestorm forced a governor to change his position, despite tremendous political pressure from the right to hold his ground.

After all, seven other states—Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas—have ultrasound laws, some more invasive than others [PDF]. Many of them have been passed in the last five years. So why did we rally around this particular case? Here's how Virginia's ultrasound bill elevated from local fight to national battle.

We expect extreme abortion bills from Texas and Mississippi, but Virginia is a purple state. "[E]ven progressive people just kind of expect that Texas is shitty and backwards and oh well, that’s just what happens there with those poor, ignorant Red Staters so what can you do?" Texas feminist Andrea Grimes said in an interview with Salon. That's a wrongheaded assumption, not only because women in red states deserve the same rights as those in blue ones, but because Texas in particular often serves as a legislative model for southern and western states (see also: the state's revisionist textbooks).

Virginia's swing state status probably also contributed to McConnell's decision to back off—as Oliver Willis quipped on Twitter, maybe it began to dawn on him that women actually vote.

Virginia is accessible to the D.C. media crowd. Many local legislative fights slip under the radar because there is a dearth of national journalists in the area. Not so with Virginia. The state's proximity to the political epicenter of D.C. made it possible for more than a thousand women protesters to show up at the state capitol on short notice. It's also likely that D.C.-area journalists felt personally attacked—many of the capital's commuters call Virginia home.

Women's health issues are a hot topic. In the past month, the media has been consumed with ladybusiness: the absurd political battle over birth control, and the Komen Foundation-Planned Parenthood fight before that. The GOP is waging a full-on culture war (even if they're calling it something else), and this bill helped fan the flames.

The word "transvaginal" went viral, from Twitter to SNL. It's not every day the national media pronounces the word "vagina," and it hit a nerve. Jon Stewart said some form of "vagina" seven times in five minutes Tuesday night. Amy Poehler used "transvaginal" as a punchline on Saturday Night Live. The expression spread across Twitter. The word stuck partly because of its comical formality. But it also lifted the veil on the seemingly innocuous phrase "informed consent." Once the vadge language hit the airwaves and piggybacked on the national discussion of women's reproductive rights, the public realized more than ever that lawmakers were using women's bodies as a political football.

Image via The Daily Show.

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