Guest Host: Marc Fisher

The Republican-controlled General Assembly in Virginia has been pushing a number of conservative social agenda items. A bill requiring an ultrasound, a potentially invasive procedure, for any woman seeking an abortion became fodder for late-night comedians. Republican Governor Bob McDonnell — who was an early supporter of the measure — called for amendments this week making the ultrasound optional. We explore the implications of this change — and whether Governor McDonnell’s national political aspirations may have influenced his decision.


  • Stephen Farnsworth Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Mary Washington; author of "The Mediated Presidency: Television News and Presidential Governance" (Rowman & Littlefield)


  • 13:06:41

    MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo. Later this hour, we will talk to someone from the new African American Museum on the Mall about the creation of this new museum and the effort to wrap all of black history up in one building. But first, ever since Republicans completed their first clean sweep of Virginia's most powerful government positions last fall. Abortion opponents have been eagerly awaiting a chance to tighten restrictions on the procedure.

  • 13:07:29

    MR. MARC FISHEROver the last few weeks Republicans in Richmond have moved to pass a bill that would require pregnant women to have an ultrasound image made of their fetus. Doctors would have to show the picture to the woman who would have to sign a document acknowledging that she had seen that picture. And abortion opponents hope that the image of a growing, living fetus would discourage many women from going ahead with a planned abortion.

  • 13:07:52

    MR. MARC FISHERWell, somehow, through weeks of debate and public hearings on this issue. Legislators never realized that requiring the ultrasound procedure at very early stage of pregnancy meant that the procedure would not be done by the usual jelly on the belly technique, but rather by a more intrusive technique, trans-vaginally. Before you knew it, Virginia Republicans were being criticized not only in Richmond, but being lampooned on "The Daily Show" and on "Saturday Night Live" where Amy Poehler joked, really? Now, don't get me wrong, I love trans-vaginals. It's my favorite airline.

  • 13:08:27

    MR. MARC FISHERAnd this has created a fierce political backlash against Governor Bob McDonnell and the Virginia government about the idea of mandating such an intrusion into women's bodies. Governor McDonnell has now, in the last 48 hours, changed his mind and decided he would not sign the ultrasound bill without revisions. Not exactly the kind of publicity the governor's looking for as his name is bandied about as a possible vice presidential candidate on a Mitt Romney ticket this fall.

  • 13:08:57

    MR. MARC FISHERWell, here on the phone with us to discuss this is Stephen Farnsworth. He's a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington. And Professor Farnsworth, this is not exactly the kind of thing that the government was hoping to have accruing to his benefit at this stage of the presidential campaign, I would imagine.

  • 13:09:19

    MR. STEPHEN FARNSWORTHAbsolutely not. The worst thing in politics is to be made a laughing stock. And Virginia right now has been declared ridiculous by no less than "Saturday Night Live" and Jon Stewart, the two biggest names in political comedy out there.

  • 13:09:36

    FISHERAnd do you think that's the explanation for the governor backing off in this way?

  • 13:09:43

    FARNSWORTHWell, this was really lose-lose for the governor. If this legislation had proceeded as originally proposed with the vaginal ultrasound, it simply would have been a problem to pass it, to sign it. And it would have been a problem to veto it. When you have a bad situation in politics, you need to cut your losses. And that, I think, is what the governor did here. It's not clear how the story ends, of course. They're trying to amend this legislation to salvage it.

  • 13:10:11

    FARNSWORTHBut the Republican situation is, you know, is clear enough. They control the levers of power. And so, if they can come up with something that they can all go with, there might still be some sort of ultrasound requirement.

  • 13:10:24

    FISHERWell, let's take a step back and see how we got here, because obviously when Republicans won not only the governor, the attorney general, lieutenant governor positions, but also control of both Houses of the legislature in Richmond, there was, at least on the part of some social conservatives, a considerable amount of crowing about the fact that they were finally going to be able to move ahead with their social agenda that they had been itching to get for many years. And obviously abortion is high on the list.

  • 13:10:53

    FISHERAnd so, it was entirely predictable that someone would come along with these kinds of proposals for restrictions on abortion that we've seen in other states around the country, including this notion that women should have to be somehow confronted with a picture of a fetus to sort of confront them with the reality of this life that is taking form within them. But somehow, in all of the preparation of the bill and discussion of it, the fact that this meant not only a traditional kind of ultrasound, but a more intrusive kind.

  • 13:11:29

    FISHERAnd I should note that we'll be discussing pregnancy and reproductive choices in this segment. And some people who may find such discussions uncomfortable may want to turn down the radio for a bit. We'll be doing this for half an hour or so. But given -- how is it possible politically that the actual medical implications of the bill were not discussed?

  • 13:11:51

    FARNSWORTHWell, I think that one of the realities, politically speaking, is that, you know, a lot of political decisions are being made on the basis of ideology, of personal commitment. And that doesn't necessarily lead to the kind of due diligence that might lead to responsible, careful lawmaking. I think that what you see with this Virginia Republican victory in the last election cycle is the great risk of overreaching.

  • 13:12:20

    FARNSWORTHThe last time the Republicans controlled all of the levers of power, back when Jim Gilmore was governor, the Republican caucus had a significant number of moderates in it, particularly from the northern Virginia area. And that meant that the truly conservative social agenda could not move through, because the Senate, even though in Republican hands, was still under moderate control effectively.

  • 13:12:41

    FARNSWORTHWhat you have in this Republican caucus now is a much more conservative Republican Party. And as a result, the caucus is much more aggressive. And you can understand why if you look at the political dynamics of the last few years, you're looking at the rise of the Tea Party movement nationally and in Virginia. You're looking at a real strident conservative movement that has really been strengthened and built in reaction to the Obama presidency.

  • 13:13:06

    FARNSWORTHAnd so, within Virginia, there was the great opportunity to overreach in many ways. And that's not something that's unique to these Republican games. And if you look back at the 2010 elections and the movement in Wisconsin that a newly constituted Republican majority created there triggered a backlash with recall elections. If you look at the new Republican majorities in Ohio, they tried to curtail the collective bargaining rights of workers in that state.

  • 13:13:38

    FARNSWORTHAnd there was a public referendum saying that won't do. And so, you ended up with a situation where, in some ways, what's going on in Virginia right now is predictable in terms of the Republican risk of overreach. But so too predictable is the counter-reaction, the response that comes from the moderate voters who may not be all that visible in terms of talk shows or in political campaigns, but really are the decisive voters when you think about who wins and losses in elections.

  • 13:14:03

    FISHERYou can join our conversation about the restrictions on abortion in Virginia by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at You can also send us a tweet to @kojoshow. And we're talking with Stephen Farnsworth who is a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington. There's a poll just out from the Richmond Times Dispatch and Christopher Newport University of Virginia voters that shows perhaps the predicament that Governor McDonnell found himself in yesterday when he was considering what to do about this.

  • 13:14:39

    FISHERNearly 6 in 10 Virginia voters approve of the job that Governor McDonnell is doing, whereas only just over 4 in 10 approve of President Obama's performance. So, clearly, Governor McDonnell, very popular, even at this stage in his term. But on this abortion issue, a slight majority of Virginia voter oppose requiring women to undergo an ultrasound procedure before seeking an abortion and a small majority also oppose defining life as beginning at conception.

  • 13:15:11

    FARNSWORTHAnd this is the so-called personhood bill, which just this morning was approved by Virginia Senate Committee and this bill provides that unborn children, quoting now, "at every stage of development enjoy all the rights, privileges and immunities available to other persons." And there was a very strong opposition at the capital this morning when the bill was passed. People chanting: Women will not be silenced, and so on. Is the legislature overreaching here in such a way that the governor feels the need to separate himself from his own Republican comrades in the legislature?

  • 13:15:49

    FARNSWORTHWell, certainly there's a concern that the governor has expressed for some time. If you go back to the State of the State address that the governor gave about a month ago now, he explicitly warned the Republican majorities not to overreach, to be cautious. And part of the reason for that, I think, is the issue that we've talked about already, the idea that McDonnell has national ambitions. And being involved in things that are very controversial could be problematic from the point of view of getting perhaps a vice presidential nod for a Romney ticket or something like that.

  • 13:16:21

    FARNSWORTHBut it doesn't seem like the lawmakers are really all that interested in the governor's national standing. It seems like the governor is in a very difficult spot here, where you've got a Republican majority, you've got Christian conservatives who, for years, have chafed not only at the Democratic majorities that existed but the Republican moderates within their own caucus who's kept the social agenda items from moving forward.

  • 13:16:45

    FARNSWORTHAnd so, there's a great deal of pressure to move forward. I think if we look at it from a larger perspective, you might say it might be a lot wiser for some of these social items to have been discussed a year from now. After the 50/50 Kaine-Allen race has been decided. After the possibilities of Virginia's electoral votes going to a Republican or Democrat had been decided. I think that, in many ways, this Republican social agenda is undermining the party's prospects for the very close elections that we're likely to see in November 2012 for the electoral votes of Virginia and also for the U.S. Senate seat.

  • 13:17:22

    FARNSWORTHA Senate seat, by the way, that may very well determine which party controls the Senate and Washington. It's a very high risk strategy.

  • 13:17:30

    FISHERAnd all of that with Virginia being a swing state, a purple state going into the presidential campaign this fall.

  • 13:17:36


  • 13:17:37

    FISHERLet's go to David in Snow Hill, Md. David, you're on the air.

  • 13:17:40

    DAVIDHi. Kojo, I think -- thank you for inviting me and letting me talk. My question about this procedure for the sonogram is if this is a state-mandated procedure that's otherwise unnecessary, medically unnecessary, then isn't the state and the taxpayers are going to foot the cost of that? I mean, the hospital's not doing it for free.

  • 13:18:07

    FISHERWell, that's an interesting point. Professor Farnsworth, I did not see anywhere in the bill that the state was going to cover these costs for them.

  • 13:18:14

    FARNSWORTHThe state is actually not going to cover the cost. This is part of the reason why this is such a controversial provision, because the way that this would be covered would be at, basically in most cases, I suspect, from the woman involved. You're looking at a situation where insurance will cover medically necessary procedures. And if the argument is that in this particular case it's not medically necessary, that it's politically necessary, if you will, that you're not going to get insurance coverage for that.

  • 13:18:41

    FARNSWORTHAnd so, not only would this be a procedure that would be conducted against the will of the woman, in some cases. But also, she would be forced to pay for it as well. It's very ironic that some of the people most concerned about government getting off the backs of Americans when the question was the Obama health care bill have come up to a very different conclusion about the level of government intrusion when the issue of course involves these ultrasounds.

  • 13:19:06

    FISHERWe will continue our conversation about abortion in Virginia after a short break. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo.

  • 13:20:58

    FISHERWelcome back, I'm Marc Fisher of the Washington Post, sitting in on the Kojo Nnamdi Show. We are talking about abortion in Virginia, recent changes politically and restrictions that the Virginia legislature is attempting to put on abortion or access to it. And you can join our conversation at 1-800-433-8850. Because we are discussing pregnancy and reproductive choices, some people may find such discussions uncomfortable and you might want to turn down your radio and return to us in about 15 minutes.

  • 13:21:29

    FISHERWe have an email from Elaine saying "The story in Virginia is about bullying women and getting between them and their doctors. The rest of the analysis is secondary. That's not the core story." Another email from Katie in D.C. "What I don't understand is why it is only when the instrument is a phallic object being inserted into a woman that lawmakers understand that this is a harmful, invasive, over reach of government. This is the state attacking women's emotional, sexual and physical and integrity."

  • 13:21:58

    FISHERAnd so, Professor Stephen Farnsworth, joining us. He's a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington. Professor, obviously, this is a hugely emotional issue and one that does indeed effect how voters will go. Is there -- do you think the republican legislatures in Richmond sort of thought this through politically before going ahead with this bill?

  • 13:22:23

    FARNSWORTHWell, I really think that the level of opposition that they've seen is surprising them. I don't think that any of them anticipated, oh, this is a way to get on the Daily Show. I think that what you see here is the nature of how different Virginia can be when you look at very different parts of the state. The conversation in the listening area around Washington may take a very different shape then if we were on a radio program in Lynchburg this morning or this afternoon.

  • 13:22:54

    FARNSWORTHAnd so it's important to recognize that a lot of these lawmakers represent districts that are very, very different then Northern Virginia. The republicans, primarily in the legislature now, do come from outside of Northern Virginia. Once upon a time when you had more moderate republicans, you had a significant number of republican lawmakers who had more moderate politics and had to present themselves in a more moderate way to be reelected.

  • 13:23:17

    FARNSWORTHNow, of course, most of the districts have been gerrymandered, drawn in ways that create very conservative sinecures for some lawmakers and then, of course, a few democratic liberal sinecures for some others. But, by and large, the lawmakers pushing these issues, the lawmakers focusing on the social agenda don't represent Northern Virginia. And, by and large, they don't have to worry that much about losing because the districts have been drawn in ways where if you can win the republican nomination, you can go back to Richmond.

  • 13:23:46

    FARNSWORTHSo much of the decision for who gets to be elected in Virginia politics is made at the primary stage, not at the general election stage because the districts are drawn in such a way is to favor one party to an overwhelming degree over another. And...

  • 13:24:01

    FISHERWell and then there is even in a district that is slanted entirely in one direction politically, a legislature can still feel some backlash, but they're not going to feel anything like the backlash that a governor who represents the entire state and hears from a much wider variety of people hears from. And especially in this case where, you know, as you pointed out, Virginia has not been embarrassed to this extent on the national stage in years. Let's hear what John Stewart had to say on "The Daily Show."

  • 13:24:30

    MR. JOHN STEWARTAnd by the way, it's not that Virginia legislatures don't understand the concept of forced violation, the supporters of this mandatory ultrasound bill believe many things rise to that level. For instance, Virginia Republican delegate Bob Marshall believes that the health care reform bill, put forth by Obama, is not regulation of voluntary commercial intercourse, it is more akin to forcible economic rape. See, Bob Marshall feels like having to buy something you don’t want is like being raped. Oh, the cable package I want has to have the Lifetime Movie Network, oh, stop raping me.

  • 13:25:05

    MR. JOHN STEWARTWhereas having something shoved inside your genitals against your will is not rape. He thinks that's not rape. He's like a regional quark. Like some places of the country call soda, pop. I guess what I can't figure out is, whatever happened to the Republicans being the party of personal liberty? Don't they remember this guy?

  • 13:25:26

    PRESIDENT RONALD REAGANThe nine most terrifying words in the English language are I'm from the government and I'm here to help.

  • 13:25:34

    STEWARTYeah I got nine scarier words for you, I'm from the government and this wand's a little cold.

  • 13:25:41

    FISHERPretty harsh stuff and yet that's what republican legislatures in Richmond are having to deal with. And some voters are feeling like maybe they made a mistake. Here's Liz, who voted for Governor McDonald, is that right? Liz, you're on the air.

  • 13:25:57

    LIZYes, I'm -- yeah, I made the mistake of voting for him because I'm in favor of smaller government and I want to protect individual liberties. I had no idea how someone can claim to have the platform of smaller government and want to invade and violate women in this way.

  • 13:26:14

    FISHERAnd so you see this as the republicans being intrusive in a way that their own philosophy would tend to argue against?

  • 13:26:22

    LIZExactly. It doesn't make any sense. There's no science, there's no backing to this. It's just to invade someone for the sake of invading someone.

  • 13:26:32

    FISHEROkay. Thanks for your call. Now, let's go to Andrea in Rockville, Md. Andrea, I think you have a different point of view of this.

  • 13:26:41

    ANDREAHi there, yeah, thank you so much for taking my call. Yeah, I am pro-life and I find the opposition from the public and from NPR commenter's so far, a little hard to understand. Listen, I can understand why John Stewart made a mockery out of that hypocritical statement that you just aired. But I'm a little confused. You know, we've been talking a lot about the invasiveness of the procedure and I realize that your guest is, you know, is taking a political stamp on this and is talking about it from a political point of view, but these guys could at least talk a little bit.

  • 13:27:14

    ANDREAI don’t know a lot about abortion. I know that I'm pro-life, but I do know that abortion has got to be painful and invasive. So in light of the fact that these women, these patients, are already going to see a physician about doing something extremely invasive to their bodies, what's one -- and I do realize you made a financial argument to that. That certainly stands. But just speaking to the invasiveness, is that really that relevant in light of the fact that these women are already about to undergo a very invasive procedure? Thank you.

  • 13:27:45

    FISHERThanks for the call. And I think those who argued against this procedure being mandated by the state were opposed to the idea that these were lawmakers rather than medical professionals who are determining when and under what circumstances a woman would have to have that invasive procedure. Stephen Farnsworth, I mean, obviously we're hearing the emotions on both sides but also some of the arguments that should've been had at the hearing in the legislature in Richmond. And apparently they never really got to this level of discussion.

  • 13:28:21

    FARNSWORTHWell, one of the things that a majority is tempted to do is not listen very seriously to a minority. And that's the nature of politics, generally. Whether you have a democratic majority or a republican majority, there's often an attempt to shut down descending opinions. And that happens a lot. But, you know, in reference to the previous caller, I mean obviously, the lawmakers who are making these decisions can represent themselves for the choices that they choose to make.

  • 13:28:49

    FARNSWORTHBut I would draw your attention to an important distinction. When a person decides whether or not to have an abortion, that is their choice. When a person in Virginia has to go to a doctor and is required to have procedures that the state mandates and yet will not pay for, it strikes me as somewhat different a matter all together. Where, you know, individuals are making these choices on, with respect to the abortion question, what the law would propose, if it does become law, would be that the state would make these decisions. And the state would not be paying for them, but rather the individual would.

  • 13:29:24

    FISHERAnd one of the groups that was most upset by this is some of the physicians who've said the thought that this was a matter of politicians usurping their role. Here's Nora in Annandale, Va. who is a pediatrician. Nora, you're on the air.

  • 13:29:37

    NORAHi, I am both a pediatrician and obviously I'm a woman and I just wanted to express my horror that in Virginia, they would consider forcing a transvaginal ultrasound on women. In today's day and age, such a backward policy is absolutely horrific. I am the mother of four children and having been pregnant, I had the transvaginal ultrasound. And I know that it's a very uncomfortable position and this is when I have been watched and with my husband holding hands, ready to have it. The idea of forcing it upon a woman is akin to raping a woman.

  • 13:30:14

    NORAIt is completely horrific and obviously the men who voted for woman to be forced to have this have never seen a transvaginal ultrasound or been with their wives when they had one. And, you know, to the other question that it's an invasive procedure and these woman are about to have another invasive procedure, you know, thank goodness, I have never had the other procedure, but forcing a procedure like this onto women, as a physician, as a mother, as a woman, I am horrified in the state that I live in.

  • 13:30:47

    FISHERWell, we should point out that the bill was actually introduced in the Virginia Senate by a woman, Jill Holtzman Vogel, who is a republican senator from the Winchester area on the fringes of the Washington area. And she has said in recent days and hours, that she did not realize that the ultrasound that she was mandating in her bill would not be external, but would, in some cases, be transvaginal. So as a physician, what do you think of whether it's a man or a woman, politicians proposing or mandating procedures that previously were a purview of physicians to make that decision?

  • 13:31:28

    NORAWell, I think the idea of an external ultrasound, while far less invasive, is completely useless because in early pregnancy, nothing can be seen externally. So, you know, it's a -- oh, we're just going to switch to an external exam, is obviously somebody without any medical knowledge because nothing will be able to be seen. You really need that, unfortunately, more invasive procedure to have it done. But it is not something that can be forced on a woman without being government rape.

  • 13:31:55

    FISHEROkay, thanks for your call, Nora. Let's go to Elizabeth in Clifton, Va. Elizabeth, you're on the air.

  • 13:32:02

    ELIZABETHYes, I can speak about this on a far more personal level. I've always lived my adult life in a sense that I never knew truly what decision I would ever make if confronted being pregnant and had not wanted to be. And I was on birth control and that decision was taken away from me while sexually assaulted 19 years ago. And I don’t know if people are aware of this, but I know the exact date I was assaulted, I also know the exact date that I had an abortion. I will never forget that as long as I live. That was the most humiliating, degrading, painful, horrible experience I have ever gone through in my life.

  • 13:32:46

    ELIZABETHI was counseled extensively by the clinic. They were very caring. They wanted to make sure that I had made the right decision. They just, you know, I don't know if people are aware that -- but you just don't go in and order it like a Happy Meal. It is an incredible life defining experience. And I want people to realize that women are not making that decision casually.

  • 13:33:15

    ELIZABETHI am a mother of a child and when I was pregnant with my daughter, I found out, and I live in Virginia, that I -- my daughter, may have been a trisomy 13 baby, which is an extremely huge chromosomal disorder. And Virginia said I was allowed to have a second trimester abortion. It was legal in Virginia for this. And we went and had an amniocentesis and luckily everything was fine and I have a beautiful healthy child.

  • 13:33:44


  • 13:33:45

    ELIZABETHBut I was counseled again and I have to tell you, even though I was counseled again and I knew all this and I was pregnant. Once again, my husband and I were faced with this opportunity of what decision were we going to make. And it was -- it was soul searching. And I said to myself my God, I don't know if I can go through this twice...

  • 13:34:07


  • 13:34:07 my life.

  • 13:34:08

    FISHERWell, thank you very much Elizabeth. This really drives home the deep -- the intimacy and the deep emotional impact of abortion and of this whole issue. And Stephen Farnsworth at Mary -- University Mary Washington, as you see what this issue brings out and the kinds of reactions to what the politicians see as simply a matter of law, you have to wonder whether the republicans will now attempt a different path or will charge ahead. And what role the Presidential election and the pressures from the national party will have on the decisions that are now being made in Richmond.

  • 13:34:51

    FARNSWORTHYeah. I think that what you've seen with these stories from the callers that we've been listening to, the last few minutes, really demonstrate just how personal this is and how unique one's own personal experiences and feelings might be with respect to how to proceed in this situation. And I think that, you know, this is where, you know, lawmakers can look at an abstraction in terms of looking at an idea in the abstract level and not necessarily recognize the magnitude of profound personal feelings that might be involved with the lawmaking that they're about to undertake.

  • 13:35:31

    FARNSWORTHAnd I think that, you know, it is a very difficult road for the legislature going forward from here because, obviously, the Christian conservative voters who put many of these republicans in office want something for their efforts on their behalf. The tea party movement also pushing for very conservative lawmaking, want to see something other than a capitulation here. So my guess is that the Republican majorities will actually try to come up with some kind of compromise in the days and weeks ahead.

  • 13:36:02

    FARNSWORTHThere's an effort to try to just use the external, I guess we could call it a jelly on the belly ultrasound, to deal with trying to satisfy some of these concerns. But it creates a significant problem in this legislative session. But in addition...

  • 13:36:20

    FISHERWell, we're going to have to leave it there. But thanks very much Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington. And when we come back, after a short break, we'll get into the African-American History Museum. Ground was broken this week on a glorious new building going up next to the Washington Monument. Well, what will go inside that building? We'll find out after a short break. I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in on The Kojo Nnamdi Show.

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