Virginia law would force women seeking abortion to undergo probe

"This kind of government intrusion shocks the conscience and demonstrates the disturbing lengths Republican legislators will go to prevent women from controlling their own reproductive destiny," said Delegate David Englin.

Virginia would become the eighth state to require women to undergo an ultrasound before being granted an abortion. Unlike in some others, they would not be forced by the doctor to look at the image. However, a copy of the image would be placed on their medical file.

Under the proposal, women would also be forced to wait 24 hours after they underwent the ultrasound before they could get the go-ahead for an abortion. Opponents claim that women would be forced to pay for the ultrasound as well. Abortions themselves cannot be paid for with federal funds.

Pro-life activists claim the process allows a pregnant woman to give "informed consent" on what Kathy Byron, the Republican Delegate who proposed it, said " may be the most important decision that she makes in her life".

"We are not forcing any woman to have an abortion," she said on the House floor. "She has made that decision, or she is about to make that decision, and it affects not only her but an unborn child".

However critics allege that the bill is a cruel interference into an act that is already traumatic. NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, a pressure group, said it was "simply about increasing the financial and logistical hurdles necessary to have an abortion" and "ultimately punishing women for exercising their legal reproductive rights".

The bill has already passed through the state Senate and is expected to clear the House of Delegates shortly. This would send it to Mr McDonnell's desk. However it appeared on Tuesday that Mr McDonnell – with one eye on his national prospects among moderate voters – was considering amending the plan.

Earlier this month, amid furious opposition from Republicans and Roman Catholic groups, President Barack Obama amended a rule that forced religiously-affiliated organisations to pay for employees' contraception through their health insurance packages. Senior Republican congressmen are currently holding an inquiry into religious freedom and contraception.

Proposals currently moving through several state legislatures, including Virginia's, would give "personhood" to fertilised foetuses, meaning that they have the same rights as adult humans.

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