The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

West Virginia legislature inches toward abortion ban with few exceptions

Abortion rights supporters chant outside the West Virginia Senate chambers before a vote on a key bill. (John Raby/Associated Press)

The West Virginia Senate controlled by Republicans passed a strict abortion ban with very few exceptions Friday during a hastily convened special session, putting the state on the verge of approving what could be the first new abortion law since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade.

The House of Delegates refused to concur with the Senate amendments to the bill and called for a conference committee to resolve the differences between the two chambers late Friday evening.

The legislation has moved swiftly through both chambers of the West Virginia legislature in the days since Gov. Jim Justice (R) issued a proclamation Monday asking legislators to “clarify and modernize” the state abortion laws at their session.

“As I have said many times, I very proudly stand for life and I believe that every human life is a miracle worth protecting,” Justice said at the time.

The proposed law would bar nearly all abortions, with narrow exceptions, including for pregnant people who face life-threatening complications, and for victims of rape or incest, so long as they report their assault.

Democrats in the Senate slammed Republicans for pushing the bill forward so quickly, calling the special session a “slow-moving train wreck.”

West Virginia is not the only state where lawmakers are rushing to enact new abortion regulations in legislative sessions this summer. Legislators in South Carolina and Indiana are also considering abortion bans.

Ahead of the Friday vote, state Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin (D) complained that he and other Democrats had still not seen the final version of the bill, heard expert testimony or deliberated before being expected to weigh in.

“We believe it to be a radical and unreasonable bill for the state of West Virginia that is out of alignment with West Virginia values,” Baldwin said. “This bill would put doctors in jail for doing their job and trying to follow their oath.”

The governor added abortion to the list of topics West Virginia lawmakers could consider during the summer session Monday morning. Within hours, House delegates drafted a restrictive law that had a first reading on the House floor that same day. A second reading took place on Tuesday. On Wednesday, public commenters were granted 45 seconds each to share their thoughts on the proposed law.

Some voiced deeply held religious beliefs and expressed support for the additional restrictions on abortions. A few religious leaders said they did not believe that faith should be the foundation of a state law and said they opposed the bill. Several women shared their personal experiences with abortion. A 12-year-old girl made an impassioned appeal to lawmakers to consider what her life would be like if she became pregnant at her young age after a sexual assault.

“If a man decides that I’m an object and does unspeakable and tragic things to me, am I, a child, supposed to birth and carry another child?” she asked. “Some here say they are pro-life. What about my life? Does my life not matter to you?”

Some state lawmakers have countered that they believe a pregnancy should not be ended in instances of rape or incest because, in their eyes, an unborn child is being killed for the crimes of the father.

Ultimately, the delegates narrowly voted to add an exception in instances of rape or incest to the abortion ban. By the end of the day Wednesday, the House of Delegates held a third and final reading and passed the bill by a vote of 69 to 23.

Reproductive rights advocates said legislators did not consider public input or give the bill the proper vetting it deserves. “This entire process and the bill itself have been crafted incredibly recklessly, without any meaningful input from the public,” said Alisa Clements, the West Virginia director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic.

The Senate decided to fast-track the legislation, too, bypassing committee hearings so that a vote could take place Friday afternoon. Republicans offered multiple amendments, including one that removed criminal penalties for physicians from the bill.

Democrats proposed an amendment to loosen requirements for victims of rape and incest to qualify for an exemption to the ban on Friday, arguing they should also be allowed to approach teachers, coaches, social workers and others in a position of authority instead of only law enforcement officials.

Some Republicans supported that change, but others said it would open a door for people to make false allegations to terminate a pregnancy. “If somebody is willing to go in and kill their baby, they are willing to go in and lie to get it done,” state Sen. Eric Tarr (R) said.

Enough Republicans joined Democrats to pass the amendment allowing minors to report a sexual assault to someone other than a police officer. Both chambers of the state legislature must agree on a version of the bill and pass it before the proposed ban can head to the governor.

South Carolina lawmakers are also moving toward a total abortion ban, tightening restrictive state laws, albeit more slowly. In early July, hundreds of people lined up outside the state capitol in Columbia in the midst of a heat advisory to testify on proposed legislation to ban abortion. Some argued for a complete ban without any exceptions. Others urged lawmakers to allow abortions under some circumstances.

The laws that South Carolina legislators are considering over the summer go further than most other state bans by making it illegal to “aid, abet or conspire with someone” to obtain an abortion. That restriction would likely hamper efforts by employers and abortion funds to pay for travel and other costs related to seeking an out-of-state abortion. One of the proposed bills also targets websites that provide information “reasonably likely to be used for an abortion.”

South Carolina lawmakers will also consider a bill, sponsored by a Democrat, that would protect abortion access, but that legislation almost certainly will not be passed by the legislature, which is controlled by Republicans. All of the proposed bills related to abortion are slated to go through committee hearings and debates, but some advocates say the process still falls short.

“They have done all the right things and yet not listened to the public at all,” said Vicki Ringer, director of public affairs in South Carolina for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic. Up until now, abortion bans have “just been an academic exercise because they knew the court would block it. But anything they pass will have an absolute impact on the people of South Carolina.”

In Indiana, the state Senate on Thursday rejected an amendment to a proposed abortion ban that would have jettisoned an exception for victims of rape and incest. After a contentious debate, Republicans split on the vote, with several arguing that the exceptions should be cut from the bill.

“Exceptions equal death,” State Sen. Michael Young (R), who offered the amendment, said on the state Senate floor. Young argued that abortions should not be allowed, even in the event of rape or incest.

But 18 Republicans joined 10 Democrats to keep the exceptions for instances of rape and incest in a bill that will ban abortion in nearly all other circumstances. The Indiana state senators were set to make a final vote on the bill Saturday and send it forward to the legislature for consideration.