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2012 Ultrasound Bill Still A Factor In Lieutenant Governor's Race

(AP Photo/Steve Helber)

On the campaign trail, issues surrounding women’s health are becoming one of the hottest points of debate between statewide candidates.

Members of the Virginia General Assembly usually go about their work in relative anonymity, attending gruelingly long committee meetings and drafting compromise language in conference committees. But in 2012, the world of Virginia politics merged with late night comedy. And Republican state Senator Jill Vogel found herself at the center of the controversy after she introduced a bill that would have required some women seeking an abortion to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound

The bill got the attention of  Jon Stewart, who was the host of The Daily Show at the time.

“The law states basically that any woman seeking to have the legal procedure known as an abortion must, whether she wants to or not, first lay back in a chair, her spread legs and feet in stirrups, and have an eight to ten inch wand put inside her — even if the woman in question is pregnant as the result of a rape," Stewart said in one on-air segment. "I don’t really have a joke here. I just thought I’d tell you.”

It wasn’t really a laughing matter to Ralph Northam. He’s the Democrat currently running for governor. At the time he was a state senator from the Eastern Shore. During a debate on the Senate floor, he confronted Vogel about the bill.

“You said that the woman would be offered an ultrasound. Is that what she in fact meant by that” Northam asked Senate presiding officer Bill Bolling.

“Mr. President, what I said is that she would have the ultrasound and she would be offered the option to view the results of the ultrasound," Vogel responded. "She’s not compelled to see the results. She would be offered the option.”

"So really what, in fact, the bill says is that it would be mandated to have the ultrasound done, not offered," Northam fired back.

That last point, the one that then-senator Ralph Northam was making for the record on the Senate floor back in 2012, is becoming one of the hottest issues in the race for lieutenant governor. Senator Vogel is now the Republican candidate, and during a recent debate she defended her bill this way: "I can assure you that there was nothing in that bill that took any rights away from women or forced them to do anything against their will.”

A spokesman for Vogel explains what she means here is that performing an ultrasound on a woman seeking an abortion was already the standard of care. To be clear it was not a requirement at the time, but a standard of care to determine gestational age.

Her opponent, Democrat Justin Fairfax, says Vogel is being disingenuous. “You can’t really spin this because facts are not attacks. When we talk about facts, what your bill would have done was force women to have an ultrasound,” Fairfax said during a recent debate.

Vogel withdrew the bill after the late-night comics targeted it. But Republicans were eventually able to pass a separate bill that requires a transabdominal ultrasound, which critics say is emotionally invasive and medically unnecessary. Now, five years later, Vogel is having a hard time with female voters. Quentin Kidd at Christopher Newport University says Fairfax is leading Vogel among women voters by 12 points.

"And I think a lot of that is attributable to not just her party ID but also this transvaginal ultrasound bill.” Kidd says Vogel is finding herself in a no-win scenario on this issue. “She’s trying to have it both ways. She’s trying to say I’m one way on abortion because conservative Republicans want me to be. But then she’s trying to speak to another set of voters and say when I saw there was a problem I pulled the bill back. You can’t have it both ways on this.”

Ultimately voters will have the final say when they head to the polls November 7th.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.