In the weeks since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, West Virginians have watched as, around the country, Republican-led legislatures have taken up strict abortion bans. On Monday, West Virginia lawmakers took their first step towards banning abortion at virtually any stage of pregnancy in the state.
Only minutes after they gavelled in for a special session to consider Gov. Jim Justice’s already-contentious plan to reduce the personal income tax, Justice announced he would also task lawmakers with updating the state’s abortion law.
Since the Supreme Court’s ruling, West Virginia’s abortion law has reverted to one that’s been on the books since the 19th century and bans the medical procedure entirely. Advocates on both sides of the issue have said lawmaker action to modernize the law is necessary; a circuit judge halted its implementation last week, citing its vague language, but West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is appealing the case to the state Supreme Court.
Despite many lawmakers claiming surprise at the last-minute nature of Justice’s announcement, within hours they had a draft bill before the House Health and Human Resources Committee.
The committee room was tense. Four Capitol security officers stood outside the door of the room that, as the meeting began, was standing room only, despite the short notice. One Charleston resident, Paul Dalzell, said he came straight from work when he heard on TikTok that lawmakers would be discussing abortion restrictions. He’s pro-abortion rights, and said the meeting was important to him because of his three daughters who may be affected by the lawmakers’ decision.
The bill proposed on Monday is a strict ban, though it appears to correct some of the mistakes of similar laws in other states that have come under fire for penalizing women or doctors for certain medically necessary procedures.
In the bill, miscarriages and stillbirths are explicitly not considered abortions. The bill also allows for procedures to remove ectopic pregnancies, the termination of medically unviable pregnancies, and the administration of emergency care that may effectively result in an abortion.
Otherwise, doctors who perform abortions are subject to felony charges on top of jail time. And with any punishment for performing an abortion falling on the provider — a possible three to 10 year sentence — Delegate Joseph Ellington, R-Mercer, conceded under questioning that some reproductive health providers may feel uncomfortable practicing in the state. Ellington, who is not on the committee but testified as an OB-GYN, also said he predicted such issues would likely be rare.
The bill would still allow the immediate use of contraceptives that stop an egg from being fertilized or implanted, like the Plan B pill. But it would not allow exceptions for abortions due to pregnancies caused by rape or incest: an amendment to add those exemptions was rejected by the committee.
“Our kids who have already left are not going to come home because they see this [law] as something from the Middle Ages,” said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia, just before the final vote.
The bill passed the House Health and Human Resources committee in a party line 16-6 vote, with three absences. It also received a first reading on the full floor of the House.
It will still need to pass the House Judiciary committee, and delegates will hold a public hearing on the bill in the House chamber on Wednesday at 9 a.m. The final version could pass the chamber immediately afterwards.
At the same time the House Health committee was debating their abortion legislation, across the Capitol a Senate committee took up a related issue.
The bill that originated in the Senate Finance Committee would increase access to contraceptives like birth control, and double the state tax credit for adoptions.
“We’re committed to the process of making sure that we support all life while we’re under this [special session] call,” said Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam.
That bill would require mandatory insurance coverage for vasectomies and tubal ligation. It would also end an old rule disallowing pharmacists from dispensing certain contraceptives to people under 18.
The Senate has adjourned until Tuesday morning and will not be able to take up the bill until at least then.