Given an opportunity to sign a genuinely pro-life bill under national media attack, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell displayed all the steely resolve of the Komen foundation and folded like a cheap tent.
After McDonnell on Wednesday reversed his earlier support for a bill that would have required all women seeking an abortion to receive an ultrasound and require abortionists to give women the opportunity to see the results, Republican legislators toned down the requirement.
The Republican-controlled Virginia House of Delegates voted Wednesday 65-32 for an amended bill that requires only an external ultrasound, not the vaginal insertion of a wand-like device that emits ultrasonic waves that are used to create images of the unborn child. A "transvaginal" ultrasound is often necessary to obtain a clear picture of the baby in the early weeks of a pregnancy.
McDonnell changed his position following national ridicule about the bill from television comedians and appeals from GOP moderates nervous about being linked to what opponents were calling "state-sponsored rape."
The amended bill now returns to the state Senate, where its sponsor, Sen. Jill Holtzman Vogel, said she would strike the legislation. A House version, by Delegate Kathy Byron, is pending before a Senate committee.
McDonnell said in a press release that most abortions require only an external ultrasound to determine the age of the unborn child, and that "no person should be directed to undergo an invasive procedure by the state, without their consent, as a precondition to another medical procedure."
McDonnell could have defended the initial legislation in any number of ways. He could have pointed out that to compare a violent, painful, criminal act to a painless medical procedure that abortionists already use as a matter of medical safety in most abortions is asinine.
He could have said that seven other states have already passed similar legislation. Virginia is neither "radical" nor "outside the mainstream" in taking this step.
He could have, cautiously, noted the obvious fact that women seeking an abortion already expect to endure the insertion of either a vacuum hose, which will crush as it removes the very small human being inside her, or extremely sharp surgical cutting tools, with which the abortionist will dismember and then extract that person. A small, smooth plastic probe doesn't seem quite so "invasive" in comparison.
McDonnell could also have observed that pro-abortion forces are probably far less concerned about minor restrictions on the ability to have an abortion than they are about the reality that abortion-minded women who view ultrasound images of their unborn children frequently change their minds and decide against the procedure. Ultrasounds are a game-changing technology and the more they're used, the weaker the case for abortion becomes.
He might have explained that without this legislation, abortionists, who have a vested financial and ideological interest in seeing that women continue with the procedure, retain their ability to withhold accurate, medical, and personally significant information. Yet somehow they construe this as "protecting women's rights."
Gov. McDonnell, of course, said no such thing, leaving the bills' many supporters in both the state House and Senate, especially their sponsors, Byron and Vogel, dangling in the wind.
There are lessons here for pro-lifers in Virginia and across the country. First, if the issues social conservatives care about are not at the top of the agenda of GOP politicians they support, they can expect those issues to be the first chips bargained away, because those are top priorities for the left.
First, McDonnell is frequently mentioned as a potential running mate for Mitt Romney, should Romney win the Republican nomination for president, and McDonnell pretty clearly decided a more favorable image with Democrats, independents, and New York comedians was more important to his political future than enthusiastic pro-life support. He may have reason to regret that decision, but, meanwhile, Virginians have an ultrasound bill that's half what it should be.
Second, abortion proponents twice in a single month figured out how to nationalize the abortion debate (first Komen, now Virginia), and pro-lifers need to be better prepared for the media onslaught.
State-by-state incrementalism works great when the furor over individual pro-life measures is limited to state and regional news outlets, but as soon as it goes national, legislators wobbly on the issues feel even more vulnerable.
Seven other states managed to pass ultrasound legislation without the news hitting Saturday Night Live, but then some clever pro-abortion hack figured out that a transvaginal ultrasound could be transformed into "state-sponsored rape" and the pressure on McDonnell exploded. Pro-lifers need to anticipate such attacks and have a ready response that supportive politicians or their surrogates can deliver at a moment's notice.
Two more Virginia pro-life bills are waiting in the wings (a personhood bill and another ending state Medicaid funding for abortions), as well as much other conservative legislation that will require McDonnell's signature, should these bills survive, so pro-lifers were diplomatic. "We are extremely disappointed in this outcome," Victoria Cobb, president of the Richmond-based Family Foundation, said after Wednesday's vote.
But given McDonnell's action, she reasoned, a mandated external ultrasound law beats nothing at all.
"If an ultrasound bill does not ultimately pass the General Assembly this year it would be, in our opinion, a far worse outcome than the amendments that passed today. For this reason, we ceased our opposition to the amendments," she said.
On the other hand, if McDonnell balked at an ultrasound bill, the chances that he'll sign onto personhood legislation-regardless whether such a bill is even good legal strategy-at this point-seem pretty slim.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
This column originally appeared at WORLD Virginia.