Update: On July 29, the West Virginia House and Senate have both adjourned without agreeing to a bill banning abortion. The procedure will remain legal in West Virginia for now, but probably not for long, as Republican supermajorities in the House and Senate were unable to reach an agreement on how far a ban on the procedure should go. Five members from each chamber will be called into what’s called a “conference committee” to hash out their differences. The members of the committee, and when they will meet, have not yet been decided.
The Senate amended the bill passed by the House by removing criminal penalties for doctors who perform abortion, and allowing minors claiming exemptions to the ban because of rape or incest to report the incident to figures outside law enforcement. Some Republicans in both chambers thought the bill didn’t go far enough, and the House ultimately rejected it.
Hundreds of protesters showed up to demand an end to the ban. Their chants were audible throughout the Capitol building, and in the chambers for nearly 12 hours. Early into the Senate’s debate on the bill, Sen. President Craig Blair ordered many of the protesters kicked out of the viewing galleries for causing a disruption when they shouted down senators, including Sen. Robert Karnes. Karnes had insinuated that young victims of rape “romanticize[d]” their relations with their assaulters. The protesters then brought their chants to the halls outside the chamber, where they continued until the end of the proceedings.
When the House adjourned without passing a bill, protesters celebrated and chanted, “we will be back,” led by Del. Danielle Walker (D-Monongalia).
As delegates plowed through their second hour of debate over a bill that would effectively ban abortion in West Virginia, dozens of protesters could still be heard chanting through the heavy chamber doors.
“Vote them out,” “my body, my choice” and “separate the church and state,” they cried.
The protesters were there to demand lawmakers stop their efforts to pass the ban. Four hours earlier, many were among the more than 100 who signed up to speak at a public hearing in the very chamber where the fate of abortion access in West Virginia was being decided. Each was granted 45 seconds to address the lawmakers. Attendance was optional and the lawmakers, overwhelmingly men, slouched, sighed, and looked down at their phones.
Around the 90-minute mark of floor debate, with the protesters sectioned off outside, a Democratic lawmaker, Wayne County Delegate Ric Griffith, stood up and acknowledged the truth that no one involved in the lawmaking process is supposed to say aloud.
“Nothing that’s going to be said today is going to change a single vote,” Griffith said. “Because we all came in here with preconceived notions.”
Now the stage is set for the Senate to approve the ban on Friday, after a tumultuous week in which lawmakers were initially called into a special session to consider tax cuts. And the Republican majority in the Senate could remove the narrow exemptions for victims of rape and incest, which were amended into the bill by House delegates.
Once Roe v. Wade was overturned in the Supreme Court a month ago, it was only a matter of time before abortion was banned in West Virginia. And it will likely be many years before the procedure is legalized in West Virginia again, if it ever is.
Though pro-abortion rights advocates have been galvanized by the past couple of weeks of action, there is little avenue for political change in West Virginia. Democrats, who, nationally are the pro-abortion rights party, hold so few seats in both chambers of the West Virginia statehouse that Republicans can, in most cases, govern without them. And in the coming election cycle, there will be no Democratic candidates on the ballot in nearly a quarter of all House and Senate districts.
And not all statehouse Democrats support abortion access, a reality that the party has to live with to hold even the slim number of seats it has now.
“I wouldn’t say that we’re a pro-abortion party, but I would say that we’re a big tent party,” said recently elected chair of the state Democratic party, Delegate Mike Pushkin. “I think we’re closer to where the voters are on this.”
Two current Democratic delegates, Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, and Nathan Brown, D-Mingo, joined the majority of Republicans in voting for the recent abortion ban bill. Conversely, five Republicans joined the rest of the House Democrats in opposing it.
Moreover, the top Democrats in both chambers, Delegate Doug Skaff, D-Kanawha, and Sen. Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, have historically supported measures making abortion access more difficult.
“As a pro-life Democrat, I have the wherewithal to recognize that being pro-choice doesn’t mean you’re not pro-life,” Skaff said during arguments over amendments to the abortion ban.
The anti-abortion group West Virginians for Life says Skaff has voted with them 60% of the time.
But for many, while they’d like to vote for statehouse representatives who support abortion rights, there are often few options.
Larry Levine lives in Lewisburg, where he believes Democratic candidates were able to run a competitive race until the city was divided in redistricting in October 2021. He has six daughters, and arrived at the statehouse on Wednesday to protest the abortion ban in a shirt with two of their faces on it.
For fifty years, he’s supported abortion rights. He remembers what it was like before the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling guaranteed abortion rights.
In 1969, Levine had a partner who he helped secure what was, at the time, an illegal abortion. His partner survived the procedure, though, eventually, their relationship ended. But the decision galvanized him to a lifetime of support.
“She found me before she died of cancer, and thanked me for supporting her choice and taking the risks that were involved in 1969 in getting an abortion,” Levine said.
While Levine sees little prospects for a pro-abortion rights delegate, in November, he plans to vote to reelect his senator, Baldwin. Though Baldwin sometimes supports measures opposed by pro-abortion rights advocates, like co-sponsoring a bill to create a statewide “Day of Tears” honoring “unborn children”, Levine is still a fan. And he believes that the party’s attitudes towards abortion are changing.
“Looking at it from a fifty year perspective, I’ve seen the Democratic party has gone through changes, and I see it going through changes in this past year in terms of state organization,” Levine said.
Levine was referring to the June election of Pushkin and vice chair Delegate Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, to the two top positions in the state party’s executive leadership, respectively. Both are staunchly pro-abortion rights, and Walker is the only member of West Virginia’s statehouse to have openly had an abortion herself. She is also one of only four 2022 Democratic candidates to have an endorsement from the pro-abortion group Planned Parenthood.
But Pushkin and Walker both acknowledge there’s a long road ahead to rebuild the Democratic party in West Virginia.
Both say they’re actively training and recruiting candidates for upcoming elections. Pushkin says he’s considering launching a data-driven direct messaging campaign to mobilize support. He also plans to focus on off-year, municipal elections to both build momentum at the grassroots level and to test the mettle of potential future statehouse candidates.
But in 22% of statehouse races on the ballot in November, there is no Democratic option. So while Pushkin says donations to state Democrats have multiplied multiple times over in the last six weeks and pro-abortion rights advocates are urging supporters to bring their energy to the ballot box, in many places that won’t be an option.
For people like Hannah Casto, 25, a nursing student from Huntington, the party’s plans may be too little too late.
Casto, along with her friend and fellow nursing student, Allison Callicoat, 20, came to protest the abortion ban bill the day before the House floor session brought dozens to the Capitol.
So for hours, the two stood, silently, outside the doors of the House chamber, bearing signs that read “Abortion is health care.”
“It’s been devastating,” Casto said. “What if contraception is next? Because it seems like the people who want an abortion ban, that’s where they’re moving.”
So Casto is making plans. She’s already decided to sign up for tubal ligation — getting her tubes tied. She said that even before this, she knew that she wanted to foster children more than she wanted to have her own.
“My reproductive freedom is so important to me that I want to take that into my own hands … I never felt the need to have to go on to full sterilization,” she said. “But in this day and age, it means more to me and my mental health to have reproductive freedom.”
Reporter Ellie Heffernan contributed to this story.