by Katherine Greenier, Patricia M. Arnold Women’s Rights Project Director, ACLU of Virginia

During the 2012 Virginia General Assembly session many bills were debated and heavily discussed. However, HB 462, the mandatory ultrasound measure, may have garnered the most media attention.  This law (effective July 1) requires most women seeking an abortion to obtain a transabdominal ultrasound 24 hours before the procedure. Doctors must keep a copy of the image in the patient’s medical file for seven years.
As part of the law, the ultrasound must be performed by a medical professional who is trained in sonography and overseen by a physician licensed in Virginia.  The statute also mandates that the Virginia Department of Health (VDH) compile a list of facilities that provide free ultrasounds and doctors must offer this information to patients prior to an abortion.
Concerned about how the ultrasound law will affect women’s reproductive freedom, the ACLU of Virginia has been monitoring its implementation.  One issue that has come to light is that VDH’s list of facilities providing no-cost ultrasounds to women seeking abortions is unreliable.
Just before the law took effect, VDH released a list of places that provided free ultrasounds, two of which were noted as not having physician supervision, which is statutorily required.  After prompting by the ACLU, VDH immediately revised the list by removing those two facilities.
When we inquired whether the other facilities met the statutory requirements, Health Commissioner Dr. Karen Remley stated in a July 13 email, “VDH staff are in the process of confirming, for each facility on the initial list, that the physician identified as supervising the ultrasonographer has a current valid Virginia medical license.”
While we are pleased that two facilities were promptly removed from the list, they should not have been included in the first place. It is troubling that VDH is undergoing this confirmation process after publicly releasing the list. Further, VDH’s response does not provide assurances that the medical personnel conducting the ultrasounds are trained in sonography, which is also required by law.  In short, the list is meaningless and unreliable for women seeking a no-cost ultrasound in preparation for an abortion.
What’s more troublesome is that the revised list is comprised solely of Crisis Pregnancy Centers (CPC), which are non-medical facilities that do not “offer, recommend or refer for abortions” and offer resources only for “life-affirming choices.”  CPCs often deter women from seeking abortion care by presenting as “fact” information about such procedures that has no factual basis in accepted science or medicine.
Curious if the CPCs listed as providing a free ultrasound would provide the necessary documentation to obtain an abortion, we contacted some of the centers on the list and asked  whether a patient or her abortion provider would receive a copy of her ultrasound image prior to the patient’s appointment for an abortion.
Two centers on the VDH list-- the Little Life Center in Danville and the Pregnancy Center of Central Virginia in Culpeper -- explicitly stated they would not provide a copy of the ultrasound image to a patient if she needed it for an appointment for an abortion.  If these facilities do not comply with the provisions of the law, why then are they included on VDH’s list, which abortion providers are supposed to offer to patients?
We posed this concern to VDH, and Dr. Remley responded, “VDH does not have statutory authority to address all of the issues you raise, concerns regarding licensed healthcare practitioners can be filed with the Department of Health Professions.”
While VDH claims not to have the authority to address all of our concerns, there is nothing in the statute that prevents it from omitting from the list of free ultrasound providers facilities that have indicated they do not meet the minimum statutory requirements nor will comply with the list’s purpose – providing a free ultrasound to a woman seeking an abortion.  Thus, we asked VDH to ensure that all centers on the list would comply with provisions of the new law.  We also submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for all documentation pertaining to VDH’s process for confirming that facilities meet the new requirements.  We are currently reviewing the documentation we received.
As we continue to monitor the implementation of the ultrasound law, we want to hear your stories.  If a facility on VDH’s list does not provide you or your abortion provider with a copy of the ultrasound image, please contact us at intake[at]acluva.org.

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