Virginia Governor signs controversial abortion bill

PORTSMOUTH, Virginia Wed Mar 7, 2012 6:01pm EST

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PORTSMOUTH, Virginia (Reuters) - Virginia's Republican Governor Bob McDonnell signed a law on Wednesday that requires women to have an ultrasound before an abortion but which left out a controversial requirement for a more invasive vaginal probe.

McDonnell, a possible Republican vice presidential contender in 2012, signed the bill after he and Republican lawmakers backed away from requiring a vaginal probe in some cases. That provision sparked fierce opposition from women's groups and abortion rights supporters who said it was demeaning.

The probe was mandatory in the original legislation, but will now be offered by the doctor when the abdominal ultrasound cannot determine the age of the fetus. Fetal age is almost never ascertainable by abdominal ultrasound in the first trimester of pregnancy, experts say.

Under the law, the woman must be offered to view the fetal image, a record of which will be kept in her medical records at the abortion facility for seven year.

Another amendment exempts women from the requirement in cases where pregnancy resulted from rape or incest and was reported to police.

Women's rights groups and Democratic lawmakers have been livid about what they say is an unconstitutional intrusion by the state.

During one of four rallies by opponents in the state capital Richmond, 30 protesters were arrested on the Capitol's steps on Saturday and charged with trespassing and unlawful assembly.

Additionally, opponents delivered to McDonnell a petition against the law with over 33,000 signatures, and the vaginal probe clause was derided by commentators, including comedians on national television.

"The bill is an unprecedented invasion of privacy and government intrusion into the doctors' offices and living rooms of Virginia women," NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Executive Director Tarina Keene said in an email, vowing Virginia women would never forget.

"Governor McDonnell's unwillingness to listen to the thousands of women across the commonwealth who are outraged by this political overreach into their lives shows nothing more than arrogance."

Proponents have claimed the overall ultrasound concept is to give women as much information as possible before making a final decision. A statement from McDonnell on Wednesday said both sides of the argument would agree that a woman's decision to seek an abortion is "difficult, irreversible and life-altering."

"This bill does not legally alter a woman's ability to make a choice regarding her pregnancy," the statement read. "I believe that we become a more compassionate society when we enact reasonable legislation to protect innocent human life," it added, saying the law aligned Virginia with 23 other states with "some type of requirement" that a woman be offered to view an ultrasound image before an abortion.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health issues, six other states have passed laws requiring abortion providers to perform ultrasounds,

While most of those states allow women to decline to view the image, Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina require women to hear the provider's verbal description of the ultrasound.

The laws in Oklahoma and North Carolina have been challenged in court but an appeals court cleared the way for Texas to begin enforcing its law in January.

(Editing by David Adams, Greg McCune and Cynthia Johnston)

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