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Virginia Senate backs pre-abortion ultrasound

By Matthew A. Ward

PORTSMOUTH, Virginia (Reuters) - Women seeking an abortion in Virginia would be required to first have an ultrasound and be given the chance to see an image of the fetus under legislation passed Wednesday by state lawmakers.

Virginia moved closer to joining several other states in passing ultrasound laws and other counseling requirements in attempt to persuade women against having an abortion.

The Senate voted 21-18 to approve the measure requiring the medical professional performing the ultrasound to obtain written certification from the woman that she was offered the chance to see the image.

The medical professional also would have to record whether the woman chose to see the ultrasound image or hear the fetal heartbeat. Viewing the image and listening to the heartbeat would not be required.

Republican Governor Bob McDonnell has spoken in favor of the bill, which he is expected to sign into law if it passes in the Republican-dominated House of Delegates.

If the legislation becomes law, Virginia would join 26 other U.S. states that require pre-abortion counseling that goes beyond basic medical informed consent, according to Elizabeth Nash, public policy associate at the Guttmacher Institute in Washington, which studies reproductive health issues.

"All of these counseling laws are designed in one way or another to reinforce this message that women shouldn't get abortions, to otherwise shame a woman when she is trying to make a decision that is best for her family," Nash said.

Six other states have passed laws requiring abortion providers to perform an ultrasound on each woman seeking an abortion and provide the woman an opportunity to view the image, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

While most of those states allow women to decline to view the image, Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina require women to hear the provider's verbal description of the ultrasound.

The laws in Oklahoma and North Carolina are temporarily unenforceable, pending court challenges. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit cleared the way for enforcement of the Texas law in January.

Family Foundation of Virginia President Victoria Cobb said most Virginians viewed the legislation as reasonable, with a recent Mason-Dixon poll showing it has the support of 54 percent of state residents overall and 57 percent of women.

"We are very pleased that the state Senate has recognized the need to update our existing informed consent practice with the most advanced medical technology available, including an ultrasound," Cobb said in a statement.

There were 28,520 abortions performed in Virginia in 2008, according to the latest figures from the Guttmacher Institute.

(Additional reporting by Terry Baynes; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Daniel Trotta)

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