Politics
4:35 pm
Fri February 24, 2012

In Texas and Virginia, Different Reactions to Sonogram Bill

The pandemonium over Virginia’s proposed abortion sonogram law — from a Saturday Night Live sketch to furious protests and intense national media coverage — bears little resemblance to the battle over Texas’ version of the law.

That’s despite some striking similarities between the two states: They’re both Republican-leaning; they both have conservative governors with national ambitions who have headed the Republican Governors Association. But the political reality is that Texas’ abortion sonogram bill and Virginia’s abortion sonogram bill were debated at very different times, and under very different circumstances.

Though both states have Republican governors — Rick Perry in Texas and Bob McDonnell in Virginia — and Republican majorities in their legislative chambers, that doesn’t mean they’re equally red, said Matt Mackowiak, an Austin-based Republican consultant.

“Virginia is a battleground state with two Democratic U.S. senators. It's a state that President Obama won in 2008,” he said. “Texas is a deep-red state, with every statewide elected official being Republican.”

In Texas, meanwhile, the passage of the abortion sonogram bill happened with limited national fanfare, on the heels of several other efforts to defund Planned Parenthood statewide. The cable pundits weren’t all too surprised that Texas would lead the charge to pass such legislation.

"I hate to say this, but in Texas we can fight all day long, but there's a propensity to write us off," said state Rep. Garnet Coleman, D-Houston. "They think, 'That's Texas. Texas is a place where those things kinds of things happen.'" 

The original Virginia bill that garnered so much national outrage required doctors to perform a sonogram in advance of the abortion, using a transvaginal ultrasound if necessary, to determine the gestational age of the fetus. After originally championing the bill, McDonnell walked it back under pressure, working to produce a revised version that assures that women seeking abortions won't be subject to a vaginal ultrasound. Women will be offered the chance to review the image of the fetus on a belly sonogram, but aren’t required to look at it.

The Texas law is more strict: It requires women to have a sonogram at least 24 hours ahead of an abortion, and the doctor to play the heartbeat aloud, describe the fetus, and show the woman the image, unless she chooses not to view it. Although the Texas law doesn’t specify what kind of ultrasound — belly or transvaginal — abortion providers say they almost always must use the transvaginal probe to pick up the heartbeat and describe the fetus at the early stage of pregnancy when most women seek abortions. 

There was vocal opposition to Texas' sonogram law, including Democratic lawmakers wielding vaginal probes on the House floor. But Virginia’s sonogram debate, and the emphasis on the “transvaginal” procedure that is very common, but not spelled out, under the Texas law, occurred in a very different context.

Within the last month, there’s been a very public blow-up — and later, reconciliation — between Planned Parenthood and Susan B. Komen for the Cure. The Obama administration levied — and later amended — contraception coverage requirements on religious organizations. And GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum has made headlines by saying that contraception is dangerous and that states should be able to outlaw it. 

"There was no Saturday Night Live skit when Texas passed its sonogram law," said Sarah Wheat, co-interim CEO of Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region. "But now we’re a year into what has widely been reported as a war on women."

In Texas, the passage of the sonogram bill last spring was a feather in Perry’s social conservative cap as he prepared to embark on the presidential campaign trail. For Virginia’s governor, who is still at the helm of the RGA, leads a state adjacent to news-centric Washington, D.C., and is being floated as a possible vice presidential contender, there’s a much narrower tightrope to walk. 

"With Virginia being more of a swing state, I think people are fearful of what a backlash by women would mean there," Coleman said. "It resonated a little louder and stronger with the politics there."

Asked whether Perry thought McDonnell had made the right decision in altering Virginia's sonogram bill, the Texas governor's office deferred.

"We have a sonogram law in Texas that values and protects life," Perry spokeswoman Allison Castle said. "Gov. Perry is proud of the steps we’ve taken in Texas to protect the unborn and ensure women have access to all the facts before making a life-ending decision."

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