Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, walks into the West Virginia Governor's Mansion on Sept. 12, 2022, for a legislative cookout. On the other side of the fence, pro-abortion rights protesters loudly demonstrate. Credit: Duncan Slade

Classical music came from the Governor’s Mansion on Monday evening, as West Virginia legislators walked 200 feet or so from the Capitol, across the mansion’s driveway. The governor had invited them to a picnic. 

The lawmakers, mostly dark-suited men, entered the mansion’s gates as classical music played. Some stared straight ahead. Others looked at the ground.

They were trying to ignore a more chaotic scene just a few feet away. On the other side of a tall black metal fence, color was everywhere, from green bandanas to neon pink signs, shirts, megaphones and abortion clinic escort vests.

Abortion rights advocates shout at West Virginia lawmakers as they walk to a picnic at the Governor’s Mansion on Sept. 12, 2022. Video by Duncan Slade.

“One, two, three, four! Abortion is worth fighting for! Five, six, seven, eight, separate the church and state!” pro-abortion rights protesters shouted. 

They stood outside the gates, screaming into bullhorns, shaking tambourines and blaring noise-makers that sounded like police sirens. The noise could be heard across the Kanawha River. 

The Abortion ban

Students showed up

Emily Gore helped to picket the legislators’ picnic on Monday. And she remained in the Capitol on Tuesday – the day state lawmakers passed the abortion ban – for hours. 

When did she first become passionate about abortion rights?

“Well, since I had to get one,” said Gore, who lives in Kanawha City. “Since they started taking the rights of women, and everything that includes.” 

When state senators passed the bill on Tuesday, Gore collapsed to the Capitol hallway’s marble floor, crying. Her face turned pink as multiple protesters rubbed her back attempting to comfort her. Her fiancée kissed her cheek, but she was crying too. 

Pro-abortion rights demonstrators chant and stomp inside the West Virginia Capitol on Sept. 13, 2022. Video by Ellie Heffernan.

Gore, who works two jobs and studies public health at the University of Charleston, wasn’t the only protester who worked around other responsibilities. Emma Tolliver and Jordan Loew, both 17 years old, came to the picnic a few hours after classes ended at Charleston Catholic High School. 

“We’re a small minority in West Virginia of people who believe this, and it’s important to rally,” Loew said. “It’s important to get together. It’s important to get your voices heard. So, your small voices are gonna make a difference.” 

And for Loew and Tolliver, who can’t vote in this year’s elections, protesting is one of the few ways they can let legislators know what they believe. 

A handful of abortion opponents

Besides legislators, there were a few abortion ban supporters at the Capitol on Tuesday. One of them was Philip Dunn, the lead pastor at Valley Christian Academy in Charleston. 

Several weeks before, during lawmakers’ earlier attempt to pass an abortion ban, Dunn walked around the Capitol with a sign that said, “Pray To End Abortion.”

“The truth is, life is precious. Even these people, I don’t hate them,” Dunn said at the time, referring to abortion rights protesters. “God’s got this master plan and there’s people — doctors, lawyers, ministers, health care workers — you’ll never see them. They never had a chance.”

Philip Dunn (left), pastor of Valley Christian Academy, talks with an abortion rights supporter at the West Virginia Capitol in July. Photo by Ian Karbal.

But on Tuesday, Dunn wasn’t gloating. He had a stack of Bible verses on small pieces of paper, and he was handing them out to passersby.

Life before and after Roe

Rita Ray had a back-alley abortion in 1959, over a decade before the U.S. Supreme Court decided 𝘙𝘰𝘦 𝘷. 𝘞𝘢𝘥𝘦. Photo by Ellie Heffernan.

Few people know about life without legal abortion better than Rita Ray, who had a back-alley abortion in 1959, before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade decision.

Ray was a high school senior in Louisville, Kentucky. She said being an unmarried pregnant woman was particularly shameful back then, and she knew she wouldn’t carry her pregnancy to term. After the man she was seeing found someone willing to perform an illegal abortion, he drove her to the stranger’s home one night and parked in the alley. 

“I was to get out, go alone and go up the steps,” Ray said. “So I went up there and knocked on the door and this woman let me in. And she led me into her bedroom. And she had me lie down and had her instruments ready. Fortunately, they must have been sterile, because I didn’t get an infection.” 

Ray said receiving counseling after a legal abortion would’ve been less traumatic. Instead, she faced her abortion alone, sitting on the edge of a bathtub, waiting for her body to expel the fetus. 

Ray worries that restricting abortion access will cause more women, especially low-income women, to go through what she did.

“Those of us who have money will be able to go to the states that offer more options or go to other countries,” Ray said. 

Kara Bostic protested outside the Senate Chamber on Sept. 14, 2022, before lawmakers passed a bill banning nearly all abortions statewide. Photo by Ellie Heffernan.

It was the thought of West Virginia’s most marginalized women that brought protester Kara Bostic to tears. 

“I’m lucky. If something were to happen, and I needed abortion care, I have a best friend that lives in Chicago,” said Bostic, originally from Organ Cave in Greenbrier County. “And I can take a train there, and abortion is protected there. Not everyone has that. And I shouldn’t have to go 500 miles on the train overnight, to get care.” 

Some Dems boycott; one Republican cracks jokes

Most legislators didn’t pay the protesters much attention. But some, including Del. Cody Thompson, boycotted the picnic to join them. 

“I’m here to show support for women across the state. Women’s access to their reproductive healthcare is important,” the Randolph County Democrat said. “And it’s just dialing women back to the 1950s, and we won’t go.” 

At one point, Del. Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, led the crowd in chants.

“They need to hear us! Say it like you mean it,” she urged protesters through a loudspeaker, before leading them in a chant of “We are warriors!” 

Other legislators smirked and waved at the protesters as they left, or stared at them from one of the mansion’s white-columned porches. There were tables nearby, but no one sat at them. 

Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Upshur, said he didn’t think the protesters’ presence at the picnic would change any votes. 

“I didn’t know they were going to be there. Maybe that’s what we’re having on the barbecue,” Karnes joked. The next day, he voted for the abortion ban, even though he said it didn’t go far enough.

But even if organizers can’t change the minds of every politician, they are changing the minds of young voters like Emily Elder, who didn’t always have abortion on their radar. 

“It was taboo … My family, they’re not going to talk about abortion,” Elder said. 

Elder works full time at a cannabis dispensary, but she has made it to every pro-abortion rights protest she can. 

“I hope that every time one of these strong people yell at them, that one thing goes to their head, where they can hopefully understand what we’re going through,” Elder said. “You can only keep trying. And you can’t silence us. I can only keep freaking being louder.”

Reporter Ian Karbal contributed to this story.