By Matthew Ward
PORTSMOUTH, Virginia (Reuters) - The Virginia state Senate on Tuesday approved a law forcing a woman to have an ultrasound before an abortion but left out a provision harshly criticized by women's rights groups that might have required a more intrusive vaginal probe.
The vaginal probe proposal sparked an outcry last week and embarrassed Virginia's Republican Governor Bob McDonnell, who is high on the list of possible 2012 Republican vice presidential candidates.
In a rare political stumble for the popular governor, McDonnell, a staunch abortion opponent, withdrew his support for the vaginal probe clause minutes before it was to be debated by the Virginia House of Delegates.
The vaginal probe issue had arisen because some doctors said a heartbeat could not be detected in the first trimester of pregnancy using an abdominal ultrasound.
The state Senate approved the weaker ultrasound law by a 21 to 19 vote on Tuesday with an exemption for women whose pregnancy resulting from rape or incest is reported to police. The House, which had already approved the ultrasound law, will now consider the Senate amendments and then could send the proposed law to McDonnell for his signature.
The bill approved by the Senate would offer, rather than require, a woman undergo an additional invasive procedure such as a vaginal probe if the mandatory abdominal ultrasound fails to determine the age of the fetus.
Some female Democratic senators said the ultrasound bill was demeaning to women and that women would seek back alley abortions rather than endure the procedure.
"Women will die," said Senator L. Louise Lucas.
The Virginia measure also requires that the woman seeking an abortion be offered the chance to see the fetal image, and that a copy of the image would be in the woman's medical record at the abortion facility for seven years.
Six other states have passed laws requiring abortion providers to perform ultrasounds, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which studies reproductive health issues.
While most of those states allow women to decline to view the image, Texas, Oklahoma and North Carolina require women to hear the provider's verbal description of the ultrasound.
The laws in Oklahoma and North Carolina have been challenged in court but an appeals court cleared the way for Texas to begin enforcing its law in January.
McDonnell's spokesman Jeff Caldwell said in an email to Reuters after the Senate vote that the governor, "looks forward to approving a common-sense ultrasound measure."
(Editing by Greg McCune)