Virginia Senator Janet Howell Fights Controversial Ultrasound Bill With Sarcasm

The Democratic senator shares the thinking behind her now-infamous proposed “rectal probe” amendment.

“I wanted to put the spotlight on how egregious this legislation was,” says Senator Janet Howell of bill SB 484. Photograph courtesy of Janet Howell.

In case you missed it last week, news of Virginia State Senator Janet Howell’s tongue-in-cheek amendment to Senate Bill 484 blew through the Internet, garnering quite a buzz. The bill, proposed by the GOP-led Virginia Senate, requires women to have an ultrasound before an abortion. Howell’s amendment? Require men to undergo a rectal exam and a cardiac stress test in order to receive a prescription to treat erectile dysfunction.

Her amendment was promptly vetoed, and SB 484 was passed with a 21–18 vote on Wednesday, but the Virginia rep’s actions weren’t totally in vain. We got in touch with Senator Howell, who represents the 32nd district, to ask her exactly what she was trying to achieve with the amendment.

When did you first become aware of SB 484?
We’ve known a bill like that was going to come for several weeks. Once the Democrats lost the Senate, we knew we’d have a whole series of bills and we probably wouldn’t be able to stop them any longer.

When did the wheels in your head start turning for this amendment?
After the committee meeting when it was passed down, I went home and saw the Cialis ad with the couple each in their own bathtub. It just snapped when I heard all of the things that could happen to a man because he was taking this medication. I thought, Well, he should get some protections, too! Of course, the fact that [the amendment’s stipulations] are not necessarily medically indicated and they’re costly and somewhat invasive . . . I thought that made it quite similar to what they were doing to women.

What was the response from the public?
The response has been overwhelming—we’ve gotten hundreds of e-mails, blog postings, newspaper articles, and TV coverage. I was very surprised. I wanted to put the spotlight on how egregious this legislation was, and I really wanted to use sarcasm to make the point. [Laughs] I never expected so many people would respond so positively to it.

What about your constituents?
They love it. Of all of the contacts I’ve had from constituents and people all over the country, only about three have been negative.

Did you expect the amendment to be approved? What if it had?
No, I knew it wouldn’t be approved. [If it had], I still would have voted against the bill. But hopefully we would have picked up some other votes to vote against the bill, and that would’ve been the best outcome.

What other issues or disparities grind your gears?
What’s happening in Virginia and also in many other states is that reproductive rights for women are being whittled away, and suddenly there is an avalanche of bills. [On Thursday] in the Senate committee, there was a bill that would’ve prohibited abortion after 20 weeks, and on a tie vote that failed.

What do you think makes for fair reproductive legislation?
I strongly support Roe v. Wade as it came down, and I don’t think we need to meddle with it. I’m old enough to remember what it was like before women could have safe and legal abortions. I know the tragedies that did happen, and I never want to see that again for the women of Virginia and this country.

Do you have anything to say to people in general, especially those who’ve reached out to you?
I think we’re going to be engaged in a very long struggle for women’s reproductive rights. People need to know that their vote counts, and to look carefully at the candidates they’re electing.

Do you have any other crafty legislative maneuvers up your sleeve?
Not yet. I wish people would send me some ideas! One of the e-mails said, “A great act one, now what’s act two?”