Among other recent attempts, some successful and some not, to restrict or make more difficult access to abortion, the Virginia state Legislature passed a bill in the first half of February that forces women seeking abortions to undergo a trans-vaginal ultrasound before they can obtain the procedure. With everything that has been happening on the national stage regarding women’s health and autonomy, this particular development has taken a back seat to some of the more attention-grabbing headlines and changes, but it is just as bad, and should be just as shocking. The bill was ostensibly meant to verify the state of gestation of the fetus. The great majority of abortions occur during the first twelve weeks of pregnancy, and for most first-term pregnancies, this determination is only possible through a vaginal ultrasound. To be clear, no woman is to be made to look at the ultrasound under this bill unless she chooses to, and there is no special medical reason to perform the procedure in conjunction with an abortion. All that would happen under this bill, which has now been modified, is that doctors would be under a requirement to violate their patients’ bodies against their will before those patients can go on to procure a legal medical procedure.
But first, a caveat – the bill as it will be discussed below failed to become law. On February 28, the Virginia Senate passed a revised bill under which women cannot be forced to undergo an invasive vaginal ultrasound before they may have a perfectly legal medical procedure – an abortion. This bill, as revised, has been signed by Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia. On July 1, 2012, Virginia will join twenty-three other states that mandate an ultrasound before a woman may obtain an abortion.
For a bill essentially mandating vaginal ultrasound as a precondition of access to a healthcare procedure to become law, though it is an outcome that would be extremely detrimental to women and women’s health, is not all that American women should fear or be horrified by. What is perhaps most terrifying, most incomprehensible, about this is that a whole Legislature considered this bill (proposed by Del. Kathy Byron – a woman) in light of Virginia’s other laws, and thought this would be a legal, acceptable change. Why is this so scary?
To understand that, one must turn to the Virginia Code. In relevant part, the Code states, “[a]n accused shall be guilty of inanimate or animate object sexual penetration if he or she penetrates the labia majora or anus of a complaining witness, whether or not his or her spouse, other than for a bona fide medical purpose, or causes such complaining witness to so penetrate his or her own body with an object or causes a complaining witness, whether or not his or her spouse, to engage in such acts with any other person.” Va. Code Ann. § 18.2-67.2 (West). The mandatory minimum sentence for a person found guilty of object sexual penetration is five years imprisonment. Under certain circumstances, that minimum may be raised to twenty-five years. It is easy to dismiss the ultrasound bill as entirely acceptable under the object sexual penetration provision of the Virginia Code because of the “bona fide medical purpose” objection. After all, one may say, the procedure is to be carried out by a doctor in advance of a medical procedure. But there is no medical purpose to the invasive ultrasound. If it were necessary in order to perform the abortion, there would be no need to mandate it by law – after all, the Commonwealth of Virginia trusts its doctors to know how to treat their patients in every other instance. And yet, Governor McDonnell supported this invasion of women’s bodies before he changed his mind and eventually signed into law the bill mandating the noninvasive yet still medically unnecessary ultrasound.
That is what is truly frightening about this story—that a group of people, those with perhaps the best knowledge of the laws of Virginia, thought that restricting women’s access to abortion was important enough to force almost every woman seeking the procedure in the Commonwealth to become a victim of sexual assault, and force doctors to become perpetrators. And if it weren’t for the outcry that followed, this bill would have become law.
The theme in recent developments in access to contraception and abortion seems to be humiliation. We would rather degrade women to push them back into what some segment of society sees as their rightful place than acknowledge that women are, in fact, capable people who have every bit as much determination over their futures and bodies as men. It is impossible not to be reminded of the heinous remarks Rush Limbaugh, the prominent Conservative radio host, made about Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown Law student who fought to be heard on the issue of access to contraception. Limbaugh called her a slut and a prostitute for exercising her civic duty to participate in the political process, all because he believes that women who are sexually active without the intention of producing offspring are wanton, or in some way defective – though it seemed acceptable to him that he demand that women like Fluke videotape themselves having sex so he can watch.
Of course, I hope that Limbaugh was not serious about the videotaping demand – though there’s no way to be sure. The problem is that the issue of women’s health and choice over their bodies, as well as the issue of sexual assault, at least in the proposed Virginia bill, are jokes to some. How else can one explain the fact that, to Del. David Albo, the bill’s weak point was that it made his wife refuse to sleep with him?