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Virginia Senate votes to repeal forced ultrasound law

Can Democrats undo the damage to reproductive rights in Virginia?
Supporters of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe listen during a campaign event in Dale City, Va., Oct. 27, 2013.
Supporters of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe listen during a campaign event in Dale City, Va., Oct. 27, 2013.

Terry McAuliffe won the Virginia governor’s mansion last year in part on his repeated promises to be a “brick wall” against restrictions on women’s access to abortion and contraception. But can he and his Democratic allies knock down the barriers that have already been built?

On Tuesday, they showed a willingness to try.

In a rare move, Virginia’s newly Democratic-controlled state Senate voted Tuesday to repeal the forced pre-abortion ultrasound law that drew national headlines (and ridicule) in 2012. The Senate vote was technically tied, 20-20, until Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, elected in the same Democratic sweep of top state offices as McAuliffe, voted for repeal. (Northam’s opponent, E.W. Jackson, once said that Planned Parenthood was more harmful to African-Americans than the Klan.)

“Virginia state senators have finally understood that this law, which is medically unnecessary and unwarranted and is really only meant to shame and judge women, needed to be repealed,” Cianti Stewart-Reid, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates for Virginia told msnbc. “Elections have consequences,” she added.

The bill is expected to die in the House of Delegates, which is still controlled by Republicans. But it was a sign that state Democrats are willing to expend political capital and energy on the issue. 

“It is nobody’s damn business who gets an abortion except for the woman seeking it and the doctor she asks to care for her,” Sen. Dick Saslaw said in the hearing, RH Reality Check reported.

The state’s pro-choice coalition has made repealing the ultrasound law a priority for 2014, along with expanding Medicaid, restoring family planning funding, and repealing an abortion insurance ban.

In November, capitalizing on the backlash to Virginia’s Republican-led abortion laws – including the forced ultrasound bill and regulations intended to shut down clinics -- McAuliffe won 59% of the votes of people who said abortion was the most important issue to them. They made up 20% of the electorate. Many of the messages test-driven in that election, including portraying Republicans as extreme on women’s rights, are expected to make a comeback in the 2014 midterm elections and beyond.

McAuliffe angered many women’s health advocates in December by retaining the Secretary of Health and Human Services who had presided over those restrictions, but insisted in announcing that he was still "committed to blocking any effort to limit a Virginia woman's right to make her own decisions about her own health care.” The Secretary, William A. Hazel Jr., said, "I have heard the promises that the governor-elect has made, and I'm 100% committed to keeping them as we go forward. I will follow the governor's lead. He calls the plays,” according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Hazel’s deputy, Suzanne Gore, testified on behalf of the ultrasound law repeal.

Legislative repeals of abortion restrictions – which have cascaded in the states in recent years – are “very rare,” said Elizabeth Nash, state issues manager at the Guttmacher Institute. But this is an era of newly-emboldened Democrats seeking to position Republicans as waging a war on women. “There are bills that would repeal abortion restrictions pending in Arizona, Ohio, Nebraska, Georgia and Massachusetts, in addition to Virginia,” Nash said.