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Once the word “transvaginal” became a big joke on “Saturday Night Live” and “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” it wasn't long before Virginia's conservative Republicans realized they had overreached on abortion.
Gov. Bob McDonnell and GOP state lawmakers Wednesday abandoned a bill requiring women to undergo an intrusive type of sonogram before an abortion -- an abrupt reversal that demonstrated the power of political satire and illustrated again how combustible the issue of women's reproductive health has become over the past few weeks.
“You never want to get on the wrong side of popular culture,” said Steve Jarding, a professor at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government and a Democratic consultant who has run campaigns in Virginia. He added: “When people are laughing at you, you know you've gone too far.”
At issue was a bill pushed by anti-abortion lawmakers that would have required women seeking an abortion to undergo a transvaginal sonogram, in which a wand is inserted in the vagina to yield an image of the fetus. The procedure differs from an abdominal sonogram, in which a wand is rubbed over the woman's belly.
Seven states have laws mandating some form of pre-abortion ultrasound exam. The Guttmacher Institute, which researches abortion-related issues, said none of the ultrasound laws in other states explicitly require the transvaginal procedure.
However, Elizabeth Nash, Guttmacher's state issues manager, said several of the laws, including a Texas measure recently upheld in federal court, effectively leave doctors with no option but the transvaginal procedure. That's because an abdominal sonogram does not produce the detailed image of a first-trimester pregnancy that is required by some of the laws, Nash said.
In Virginia, the bill began muscling its way through a legislature that recently came under the rule of GOP conservatives. It moved ahead despite an outcry from women and Democrats, including a female lawmaker who called it “state-mandated rape” and another who made her point with a failed amendment requiring rectal prostate exams for men seeking Viagra prescriptions.
It didn't fully jump the fence from politics into pop culture until “SNL” lampooned it on Feb. 11.
“Really?” comic Amy Poehler sneered in noting the Virginia bill on “SNL.” “Don't get me wrong, Transvaginal is my favorite airline. I have so many miles on Transvaginal that they upgrade me to ladybusiness.”
Stewart wisecracked that “Transvaginal Ultrasound” was the name of a jazz fusion band he once saw in concert.
And conservative columnist Megan McCain, daughter of 2008 GOP presidential nominee John McCain, said on MSNBC that she is “pro-life, but I'm not pro-vaginal probing.” She added: “I'm just horrified by this bill. As a Republican woman, I'm horrified.”
Earlier this week, more than 1,400 people -- mostly women -- locked arms in protest outside the Capitol, and petitions bearing more than 30,000 names were presented to McDonnell by women's groups.
McDonnell, a Roman Catholic political protégé of religious broadcaster Pat Robertson who has been mentioned as a possible vice-presidential candidate on a ticket with Mitt Romney, backed down on Wednesday, saying: “Mandating an invasive procedure in order to give informed consent is not a proper role for the state.”
He said he supports legislation that would require pre-abortion sonograms, but not the invasive variety.
It was just the latest reversal over the past few weeks on the issue of women's health.
After a three-day furor, the Susan G. Komen breast cancer charity dropped plans to withdraw funding from Planned Parenthood. And President Barack Obama was forced to back off requiring religiously affiliated universities, hospitals and other organizations to provide free birth control their employees.
How much damage is done to McDonnell and the GOP depends on how broadly the issue permeates pop culture and who's watching, said Merle Black, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta.
“A lot of people watching those shows wouldn't necessarily support McDonnell anyway. The question is whether it's reaching and turning off independents and especially women,” Black said.
But Jarding warned: “When the female anatomy becomes a policy term in your state and the governor is the guy identified with that, that's not where you want to be.”