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Panel kills optional ultrasound bill
State Sen. Ralph Northam, D-Accomack, right, reacts to actions by the committee chairman during a meeting of the Senate Health Education and Welfare committee at the Capitol Monday in Richmond. The committee killed Northam's bill that would have made ultrasounds prior to abortions optional. State Sen. John Miller, D-Newport News, looks on at left. (AP)
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
RICHMOND (AP) — A Republican-run Senate committee swiftly killed legislation Monday that would have made Virginia’s mandatory pre-abortion ultrasound exams optional after the committee chairman blocked discussion of the bill.
The hastily convened Education and Health Committee special meeting lasted just minutes with Democratic Sen. Ralph Northam’s bill dying on a party-line vote. Six Republicans opposed and three Democrats supported it. Once proxy votes from absent Republicans were added, the final tally swelled to 8-3. Four committee Democrats did not vote.
“What a kangaroo court this is, Mr. Chairman. This is an embarrassment,” Northam huffed after committee chairman Steve Martin ordered a roll call vote while stifling efforts by Northam, who is a doctor, and at least one other physician to testify for the bill.
Martin, a Republican, contended the committee had already discussed the bill. Its history in the Legislative Information System, however, showed that Senate Bill 1332 had never been before a committee or a subcommittee.
Martin then reasoned that because the bill had the same net effect as those to repeal the ultrasound mandate that the committee had already killed that any distinctions were irrelevant.
Northam stormed from the room, the latest partisan skirmish in a legislative session of deep resentments between Senate Democrats and Republicans that threatens to stalemate many of the year’s most consequential initiatives, including Gov. Bob McDonnell’s public education and transportation changes.
Martin and Northam are both candidates in November’s lieutenant governor election.
“This was, again, just an example of how they’re doing business these days,” Northam said outside the meeting room. He was trying to explain to Dr. Kenneth Olshansky, a retired Richmond plastic surgeon who hoped to testify in favor of the bill, why he was not allowed to speak.
Last year, the legislation that requires doctors to “perform fetal transabdominal ultrasound imaging” at least 24 hours before abortions triggered angry protests, predominantly by women’s rights advocates. The protests culminated in dozens of arrests on the state Capitol’s steps last March. The law also resulted in scathing editorials and of Virginia Republicans, including Gov. Bob McDonnell, being lampooned by television comedians.
Northam, who practices pediatric neurology in Norfolk, and other physicians have denounced the law as a government intrusion into medical practice and the sanctity of the doctor-patient relationship.
“This has nothing to do with abortions,” Olshansky said of Northam’s bill. “The effect of these laws is to shame women into not having abortions.”
Six bills this year sought to reverse the ultrasound mandate — three each in the House and the Senate. Four bills would have repealed the law. Northam’s bill and a House version would make the exams optional upon consent of doctor and patient — the arrangement that existed before the mandate took effect last July.
The bill the Senate committee killed Monday was the last mandatory sonogram reversal measure standing.
Martin said Monday that because all the bills would eliminate mandated ultrasound exams, Northam’sl didn’t differ from those the committee had killed. So he cut Olshansky off when he stood and asked to speak.
“We have heard this bill previously, both last year and earlier this session, just about two weeks ago,” Martin told Olshansky.
“So there’s no discussion?” Olshansky inquired.
“The bill has been PBI’d,” Martin replied, using the acronym for “passed by indefinitely” or — translated from Capitol Square jargon — killed.
Northam said he didn’t learn of the special meeting until Sunday night. It was held in a meeting room in the Capitol, not the Senate hearing room where the committee is scheduled to meet in the nearby General Assembly Building each Thursday.
Committee member Janet Howell, D-Fairfax County, said the first she heard of it was in the Senate clerk’s announcements at the close of Monday afternoon’s floor session, just minutes before the committee meeting began.
After the meeting, Martin dismissed the objections as partisan posturing, claiming Democrats had employed similar hardball tactics when they controlled the committees a few years back.
“I’ve got to try to clear the docket here and there’s no sense having a full public hearing on something we’ve already had a full public hearing on,” Martin said.
“I’m not so much concerned about the optics of this as I am about how things are,” he said.
Senate Bill 1332: http://leg1.state.va.us/cgi-bin/legp504.exe?131+sum+sb1332