WASHINGTON — Lawmakers in Virginia put off a final vote Tuesday on a highly contested bill that would require women in the eastern US state to undergo a transvaginal ultrasound prior to an abortion.
Republican Governor Bob McDonnell, a Roman Catholic father of five, was poised to swiftly sign the so-called "informed consent" bill -- adopted by the state senate earlier this month-- into law.
But a day after 1,000 protesters descended on the state capitol in Richmond, the House of Delegates held off on third and final reading of the legislation, leaving open the possibility it might yet be amended or dropped altogether.
It was not clear when the bill -- opposed by a majority of Virginians, according to one recent opinion poll -- might come up for a vote again.
Abortion is quickly becoming a hot-button issue in the run-up to the November presidential election, with fast-rising Republican hopeful Rick Santorum in particularly styling himself as champion of the pro-life cause.
Seven US states already mandate pre-abortion ultrasounds, which pro-life activists contend would discourage women from terminating pregnancies by informing them of the gestational status of their fetus.
Critics say the proposed Virginia procedure -- in which a foot-long (30 centimeter) probe is inserted into the womb -- amounts to state-sanctioned rape, as neither a woman nor her doctor would be able to opt out of it.
The woman can choose not to see the ultrasound, but the image would stay on file for seven years.
The Virginian-Pilot newspaper, anonymously quoting two legislators including a conservative Republican, said Tuesday that making such ultrasounds optional was one idea under discussion.
In an unsuccessful motion Tuesday to kill it altogether, Democratic legislator Charniele Herring denounced the bill as "extreme" and "fundamentally and seriously flawed."
"No longer is the national conversation about Virginia being the best place to do business or the best place to raise a child," she told the male-dominated legislature as visiting students looked down from the public gallery.
"The national conversation is about whether a vaginal probe is a mandatory prerequisite before a woman exercises her constitutional right."
Fifty-five percent of 1,018 respondents to a Richmond Times-Dispatch opinion survey earlier this month said they opposed mandatory pre-abortion ultrasounds. Thirty-six were in favor.
The US Supreme Court legalized abortion in its landmark Roe versus Wade decision in 1973, ruling that abortion was a strictly private matter between a woman and her doctor.
Talcott Camp of the American Civil Liberties Union's Reproductive Freedom Project told AFP the Virginia bill was "part of a real extremist wave we're seeing across the country" targeting women's health.
Such initiatives "always sort of pretend to be for the purpose of furthering women's health and they are absolutely not," she said. "They sacrifice women's health for political ends... Let doctors practice medicine, not legislatures."
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