Virginia Backs Down on Mandatory Transvaginal Ultrasound

*Update: Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell retracted his support of transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions Wednesday afternoon. In a statement released to the press, McDonell said:

Thus, having looked at the current proposal, I believe there is no need to direct by statute that further invasive ultrasound procedures be done. Mandating an invasive procedure in order to give informed consent is not a proper role for the state. No person should be directed to undergo an invasive procedure by the state, without their consent, as a precondition to another medical procedure.

The new bill makes the transvaginal ultrasound voluntary but requires an external, non-invasive, ultrasound.

Since it passed the House of Delegates last week, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell has maintained that he would sign a bill mandating transvaginal ultrasounds for women seeking abortions, should it reach his desk. Not only does this place him on the wrong side of reproductive health advocates—who (rightly) view this as forced penetration—but also the large majority of Virginians, who oppose the measure by more than 19 points.

You could almost say that the situation is spinning out of control for the Virginia governor, who ran in 2009 as a pragmatic technocrat whose goal was to fix the economy, not force a radical social agenda. The national outcry against the bill has been huge, with coverage from most major newspapers and news networks, and criticism from programs like The Daily Show. The ACLU has announced its opposition to the proposal, and earlier this week, more than 1,000 on the state capitol to protest the bill.

Yesterday, in what looked like a response to mounting criticism, Republicans delayed a scheduled vote on the Senate’s version of the bill, moving it to today. What's more, The Washington Post reports, McDonnell backed off of his unconditional support for the legislation:

McDonnell’s office would say Tuesday only that the governor will “review” the bill if it is approved.

“Our position is: If the General Assembly passes this bill the governor will review it, in its final form, at that time,” McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin said in a statement. He declined to explain the change in approach, but Virginia’s governors can sign, veto or amend legislation.

It’s clear to anyone watching that Bob McDonnell wants to be president of the United States. Already, he’s widely viewed as a top contender for this year's vice-presidential spot, and for good reason; he’s popular, governs a swing state, and has a deep well of support within the Republican Party and the conservative movement. I have no doubt that if he were a little more experienced on the national stage, he would currently be the prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination.

But if McDonnell has a weakness, it’s his long history of extreme social conservatism, which briefly became an issue during his gubernatorial campaign. He was able to move past the controversy by focusing on the economy—and repudiating his former belief that women should stay in the home—but his governorship has revealed the extent to which he’s still moved to support reactionary attacks on women and gays. Last December, for example, he signed a bill that outlawed same-sex adoption and allowed adoption agencies to discriminate on the basis of age, gender, religion, political belief, and family status.

The national scope of this fight brings McDonnell’s social conservatism into relief, and reveals the extent to which he’s fairly close to extremist politicians like former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who see the state as a tool for forcing right-wing values on all Americans. This might not derail McDonnell’s rise to the top of Republican politics, but it certainly doesn’t help.