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Abortion bill stole show at 2012 General Assembly

Sunday - 3/11/2012, 6:31am  ET

Associated Press

RICHMOND, Va. - More than 1,000 women locked arm-in-arm in silent protest. Police in riot gear confronting women's-rights demonstrators on the Capitol steps. Virginia being skewered over vaginal ultrasounds on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."

These are the abiding images from the 60-day regular session of the 2012 General Assembly, which adjourned Saturday night with the most important bill of any legislature - the budget - unfinished and on life support.

Legislators passed more than 1,500 bills, but none attracted as much attention as those mandating invasive pre-abortion ultrasound exams, something its most strident critics called "state-sponsored rape."

The measure prompted protests on Capitol Square, including one that resulted in 30 arrests. It drew scorn from national columnists and television comedians and generated some of the sharpest rhetoric in a long time on the Senate and House of Delegates floors.

"I've been here 21 sessions, and I've seen lots of bills, but very seldom do I get angry. But I am angry now. This bill is demeaning toward women," Sen. Janet Howell, D-Fairfax, fumed during the debate.

Feeling the heat, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell had the bill amended to mandate external ultrasounds in which a wand is passed over a woman's abdomen. But that failed to placate opponents, who continued to insist the state has no business meddling in such medical decisions.

McDonnell signed the bill which, like most of the passed legislation, becomes law July 1.

The ultrasound bill was part of a wave of social-issue legislation pushed by Republicans, who strengthened their House of Delegates majority in last fall's election and used Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling's tie-breaking vote to seize control of the evenly divided Senate.

Results of the social agenda were mixed. Legislators rejected a "personhood" bill that confers full legal rights of a person to embryos from the moment of conception. Bills to prohibit most abortions after 20 weeks and to deny Medicaid funding for indigent women carrying seriously deformed fetuses failed, as did a proposal to require drug-testing of welfare recipients.

But legislators passed a bill allowing private adoption agencies to deny child placements that conflict with their moral or religious convictions, including opposition to homosexuality. Proponents of the so-called "conscience clause" legislation said it protects the religious liberty of private agencies, many of them faith-based, that provide essential adoption and foster care services for the state. Opponents argued that the state should not sanction or underwrite anti-gay discrimination.

Republican-backed legislation requiring voters to show identification at the polls provoked outrage from Democrats, who argued that the real goal was not to guard against fraud but to suppress turnout of minority, young and senior citizen voters.

Under current law, voters who don't have their ID can vote after signing an affidavit attesting to their identity. Now those voters will be required to cast a provisional ballot that will be counted only if they return after Election Day with the needed ID.

Emboldened by its electoral gains, the GOP also sought to muscle through a flurry of pro-gun legislation. Again, success was mixed. Two Democratic senators broke ranks and helped pass legislation repealing the 1993 law limiting individual handgun purchases to one per month.

However, legislators rejected proposals to allow guns on college campuses, to allow anyone to carry a concealed weapon without a permit, to allow guns in airport terminals and to write into state code the common-law "castle doctrine," which protects from criminal and civil liability anyone who kills an intruder in self-defense.

The session also will be remembered for adjourning without passing a two-year, $85 billion budget _ the result of a bitter partisan feud that started on the session's first day, when Bolling's tie-breaking vote gave the GOP control of committees.

Budget stalemates are nothing new in Virginia. Negotiations dragged on into May and June in 2004 and 2006, respectively, but at least budget conferees had a bill to deal with. This time, Senate Democrats _ demanding power-sharing and other concessions _ denied Republicans the 21st vote needed to pass either the Senate or the House budget bill. While Bolling can vote on most legislation, the Virginia Constitution bars him from voting on the budget.

Lawmakers agreed to end the regular session on schedule and convene a special session to try again on the budget. Also deferred to the rump session is the selection of judges, an issue dependent on the budget to prescribe the number of judgeships to be funded. Legislators will return to Richmond on March 21.

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