Virginia’s Ultrasound Law is the Latest Chapter in a Legal Battle over Abortion

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A controversial bill in signed this month in Virginia that has made ultrasounds for women seeking abortions mandatory, again highlights the division in America over the issue of abortion.

Abdominal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions in the Commonwealth will become mandatory after July 1, 2012. The measure was recently signed into law by Virginia’s Republican governor Bob McDonnell.

The bill was signed amid scenes of protest in Richmond, but earlier versions of the bill proved even more contentious because it proposed an invasive form of ultrasound.

The new law “requires all Virginia abortion providers to comply starting July 1 or pay a $2,500 fine for each violation,” CBS news reported.

Patients who live within a distance of 100 miles of the clinic performing the abortion must wait 24 hours after the ultrasound before having an abortion, under the new law. Victims of rape or incest who notified the police of their attacks are exempt. While woman have to be offered a chance to see the images under the new law they can’t be forced to do so.

The original measure attracted widespread criticism because it required women to undergo a transvaginal sonogram, a procedure in which a wand is inserted in the vagina to produce an image.

Critics said the measure deliberately sought to require an invasive procedure to dissuade women from having abortions when a less invasive method was available. McDonnell amended the bill to allow the use of an abdominal sonogram, in which the wand is instead rubbed over a woman’s belly. The initial bill also applied to all abortions including incest and rapes.

“As difficult as an abortion decision is, the information provided by ultrasounds, along with other information given by the doctor pursuant to current law and prevailing medical practice, can help the mother make a fully informed decision,” McDonnell said in a statement.

Virginia is not alone in requiring pre-abortion ultrasound screening. Seven other states have the measure.

The legislation closely resembles similar bills making their way through legislatures in 12 other states, according to an analysis by the Sunlight Foundation.

Abortion law has been one of the most controversial areas of family law in the United States for more than a century, pitting arguments of a woman’s freedom of choice against those of the rights of the unborn child.

Laws banning abortion first appeared in America in the 1820s, originally forbidding abortion after the fourth month of pregnancy.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade, remains the most important judicial decision in this volatile area.

Jane Roe was a pseudonym for Norma McCorvey, woman from Texas who was pregnant but unmarried.  She wanted an abortion, but was denied under Texas law. A federal lawsuit was filed seeking to have the Texas law overturned as unconstitutional.

The US Supreme Court on a 7-2 vote agreed with Roe that the law criminalizing abortion violated her right to privacy. The case decided a state cannot regulate abortion in the first trimester beyond making sure the procedure is carried out by a licensed doctor in medically safe conditions. The court also ruled that a fetus is not a person protected by the constitution.

Before Roe v. Wade all states had laws on their books criminalizing abortions dating back to the 19th century. These laws stayed on the books until the 1960s and 1970s in many cases.

The landmark case failed to take the sting out of the abortion debate. If anything, it became more intense.

Opponents led by the Catholic Church, became more organized. In the 1980s, the Republican President Ronald Reagan, an outspoken opponent of abortion, argued for the reversal of Roe v. Wade.

The President appointed C. Everett Koop, an abortion opponent, to the position of surgeon general. But Roe v. Wade remained in place.

By the 1980s the abortion issue was spilling over into violence in the organized blocking of access to clinics which provided abortion services, organized primarily by a new group called Operation Rescue.

There were also bombings of abortion clinics by radicals. On Christmas Day, 1984, three abortion clinics were bombed. One of those convicted described the crimes as “a gift to Jesus on his birthday.”

Although the violence has died down, abortion continued to be a political and legal battleground as witnessed in Virginia.

The legal focus shifted to later term abortions in recent years. In the 2000 case of Stenberg v Carhart, Nebraska’s law that made the performing of partial-birth abortion illegal, was struck down by the Supreme Court.

In 2003, the federal government moved on the issue, enacting a Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. Although several federal judges struck down  the law, citing the precedent of Stenberg v. Carhart, it was upheld by the Supreme Court in Gonzales v. Carhart.

Rules requiring a woman to get “informed consent” or parental consent have proved to be another volatile area for legal action

Generally an abortion provider must give information about the risks, the alternatives, the age of the fetus, and information about assistance available for the woman to have the child. Requirements by states for women seeking abortions to have ultrasounds, is part of the informed consent agenda.

The Supreme Court generally has upheld parental consent laws, provided they allow a minor the ability to obtain permission to have an abortion from a judge rather than a parent. There are 26 states that require parental consent to abortion and 37 states that require some kind of parental involvement such as parental notification short of consent. In all cases the lack of consent can be overturned by a court ruling.

Wide variations in abortion law remain at state level. For instance, 46 states allow individual health care providers to refuse carry out an abortion. And 43 states allow institutions to refuse to perform abortions.

In all 19 states mandate that women receive counseling before an abortion including information on factors such as the possible link between abortion and breast cancer in seven states and the ability of a fetus to feel pain in 11 states.

The Republican-controlled US House of Representatives is currently considering the “Child Interstate Abortion Notification Act” that would effectively federalize state laws of abortion for teens, and is aimed at preventing women under 18 from obtaining an abortion. It would impose harsh penalties on doctors or anybody else who helps a minor obtain an abortion without first informing her parent or guardian.

The law on abortion remains a fast moving and bitterly contested area.

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