RICHMOND, Va. — A campaign by pro-abortion forces to portray a particular kind of ultrasound used in early pregnancy as invasive and tantamount to rape seems to have paid off in Virginia.

Gov. Bob McDonnell initially supported a bill that required a woman have an ultrasound before undergoing an abortion, then backtracked last week and asked for an overhaul of the bill that seriously dilutes it.

While not entirely abandoning the ultrasound bill, McDonnell called for amendments specifically banning the transvaginal ultrasound, which is required to pick up a baby’s heartbeat early in a pregnancy. Abortion-rights activists singled out this procedure as invasive — even comparing it to an act of rape.

It was this scaled-back bill that Virginia’s Republican-controlled Senate approved Tuesday, Feb. 28, in a 21-19 vote that fell along party lines.

Because an amendment was added in the Senate, the bill now must go back to the House of Delegates for another vote.

But the rhetoric by abortion advocates appears to have been effective in weakening the bill that just passed.

In putting forward his amendment last week, McDonnell said, “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.”

“We considered the campaign against the ultrasound bill disingenuous and absolutely false,” said Kristi Hamrick, spokeswoman for Americans United for Life. “It was a very vindictive campaign against the bill and an attack on Governor McDonnell, portraying him as not being women-friendly.”

On Feb. 24, state Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Winchester, who sponsored the original ultrasound bill, requested that the Senate scrap her bill.

The Senate agreed to strike the Vogel bill, which meant that the amended bill approved by the Senate Tuesday was the only hope left for those who believe that an ultrasound should be part of informed consent before an abortion.

Vogel’s legislative aide Tricia Stiles told the Register late last week that her decision was the result of “a lot of misinformation” regarding the bill. She said that Vogel plans to support the House bill when it comes to the Senate.

“Unfortunately, Senator Vogel’s bill became known as ‘the transvaginal bill,’” said Stiles. “We know that abortion clinics do transvaginal ultrasounds all the time. But, suddenly, it was being said that Senator Vogel is in favor of rape for the women of Virginia.”

“The vast majority of the women of Virginia who campaigned against this bill did not understand that the transvaginal ultrasound is already common practice,” said Stiles.

Stiles characterized opponents of the bill as saying, “Let’s find a way to defeat this bill, and the way to defeat this bill is to scare women into believing that they are going to be raped by the state of Virginia.”

The term “transvaginal ultrasound” was not used in the original bills, which only stated that an ultrasound must be conducted before an abortion. There was no requirement that the women look at the ultrasound, though the bills stipulated that the patient had to be clearly informed that she had the right to see it.

“The unfortunate thing is that pro-abortion groups have hijacked the debate and manipulated the facts by talking about the transvaginal ultrasound,” said Olivia Gans, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life.

“When pro-abortion people are fighting a reasonable bill like this one,” said Gans, “they will pull out all the stops. They did more than misrepresent. They deliberately lied about this procedure. The transvaginal ultrasound pales in comparison to the invasiveness of the procedures that are about to be used in an abortion.”

Gans asserted that abortion advocates opposing the bill were often organizations or individuals engaged in providing abortions. “When your livelihood is threatened,” said Gans, “you go full tilt.” 

An ultrasound is commonly performed in an abortion facility before an abortion. If the abortion is conducted early in the pregnancy, when the unborn child is still very small, a transvaginal ultrasound is necessary.

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia’s executive director, Tarina Keene, admitted that “the providers I deal with do offer ultrasounds,” but she insisted that “for the state to intervene is where we draw the line.”

Keene said she supports the HHS mandate requiring faith-based institutions to pay for insurance policies that provide contraception even if they find it morally objectionable, however, because “I feel birth control is basic health care.”

“You can make a good case that this procedure is not only invasive, but you could also possibly label it as ‘rape,’ not that I was necessarily talking about it that way,” Keene said.

Several opponents of the bill, including Keene, have asserted that the term “rape,” as defined in the Code of Virginia, might apply to a mandatory transvaginal ultrasound. But, while the relevant section of the code (18.2-61) focuses on acting against a person’s will, the section specifically mentions sexual intercourse, and it would, therefore, be quite a stretch to extend the definition to a transvaginal ultrasound, even a mandatory one.

NARAL’s Keene acknowledged that the effort to highlight the “invasiveness” of the transvaginal ultrasound helped shift public opinion.

“Once you start talking about an invasive procedure and saying that a woman has to pay hundreds of dollars [for an ultrasound] to access a constitutional right to abortion, it changes the conversation,” said Keene.

She noted that the campaign against the ultrasound bill “took off” only after Delegate David Englin referred to “sexual penetration” in talking about the bill.

She added that “using the word ‘vagina’ always stirs up people.”

Although the Virginia campaign is far from being the first time the abortion-rights advocates have used colorful language, even The Washington Post took note of what it called “a shift in abortion-rights rhetoric” that was especially pronounced in Virginia.

The newspaper quoted Anna Esacove, a sociologist at Muhlenberg College, who studies the politics of abortion.

“In any of these contests, you need to get people passionate,” Esacove was quoted saying. “Framing this as rape creates a passionate response for people who are against the laws. Even if people don’t think it’s rape, it gets people talking about it.”

Like the Komen Campaign

Talking wasn’t all. The bill became the subject of ridicule from the pro-abortion side, mocked in a skit on Saturday Night Live and by comedian Jon Stewart, who called it “a TSA pat down in your vagina.”

“Ridicule is the favorite propaganda weapon of those who can’t refute the argument,” said Paul Rondeau, executive director for the American Life League.

“What you see happening in Virginia is related to the national picture,” said Rondeau. “Nothing happens in a vacuum. The pro-abortion side sees itself losing the battle and so it is becoming more volatile, vicious and strident with its rhetoric.”

Rondeau noted that the pro-life side enjoyed a number of state-level legislative successes last year. He also compared the tenor of the campaign against the Virginia ultrasound bill to the recent assault against Susan G. Komen for the Cure, a cancer-advocacy foundation, when the organization announced it would no longer fund Planned Parenthood. Komen has since apologized for the decision and has since said it will once again accept funding requests from Planned Parenthood.

If the ultrasound bill passes, Virginia will join seven other states (Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas) in requiring that women must undergo ultrasounds before having an abortion.

Only Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina require women to listen to a description of the ultrasound by the abortionist.

The Oklahoma and North Carolina laws are facing court challenges, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit upheld the right of the state of Texas to enact the law.

Keene said that the Virginia law garnered a great deal of national attention because McDonnell, who is Catholic, has been mentioned as a possible running mate for the eventual Republican presidential nominee.

“There is a spotlight on our state,” Keene said, “because our governor has made it known that he would be glad to take the second spot on a Republican ticket. He’s a social conservative who has portrayed himself as a moderate. He wanted to keep a low profile.”

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Gov. McDonnell, Tucker Martin, countered that, while serving in the General Assembly, the governor was the author of the state’s 2001 bill requiring informed consent before an abortion is performed.

“The governor has been consistent. He supports an ultrasound as part of Virginia’s informed consent,” said Martin.

Martin declined to comment on the campaign against the ultrasound bill or claims that the transvaginal ultrasound is invasive.

Keene, with NARAL, insists that this issue has attracted so much attention because McDonnell wants to be known as a moderate. But Martin, the governor’s spokesman, said: “The governor is focused on Virginia. That is his job. As far as people want to talk about this as having a place in the national debate, we’ll leave that to pundits and activists.” 

Despite McDonnell’s pulling back, Olivia Gans of the Virginia Society for Human Life says that the governor still backs the modified bill, and “that’s a positive.”

Abortion-rights advocates, however, won’t be mollified by the governor’s partial retreat. Keene said that the new language still won’t make the bill acceptable.

Meanwhile, the General Assembly has tabled a bill that would grant personhood rights from the moment of conception until next year, which ensures that abortion will remain a hot issue in Virginia for some time to come.

Register correspondent Charlotte Hays writes from Washington.