As he walked from the Capitol to the parking lot on Monday evening, Senate President Craig Blair wasn’t saying what his plans were for taking up stalled legislation to ban abortion in West Virginia
“Watch and see tomorrow,” said Blair, R-Berkeley.
He then pointed his cane at protesters gathered outside the gates of the Governor’s Mansion, and asked Senate Finance Chairman Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, who walked beside him, “Are we gonna get in trouble?”
“I don’t care,” Tarr said. “What more could they do to us?”
Six weeks earlier, work on the abortion ban stalled when Republicans couldn’t agree on how strict it should be. Since then, leaders of the Republican supermajority had been trying to work out a deal, with those discussions happening outside the public view. House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, wanted a conference committee that could have moved some of that debate into public, but Blair opposed that approach.
Later that evening, the Republican leadership announced that both chambers would be reconvening to revive the abortion ban.
The next afternoon, senators began their session facing the front of the chamber and bowing their heads in prayer.
“I pray for the business that is at hand today, that every vote would be pleasing in your sight, knowing that we will give account to you in eternity,” said Sen. Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh, who is a pastor. “I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen.”
Outside the chamber, protesters chanted and made noise by beating together inflatable tubes in thunderous unison — the only way they were going to be heard.
By the end of the day, both houses had voted overwhelmingly to ban most abortions in West Virginia.
The Abortion ban
The entire process — in a special session that began in July and included a six-week break — included only two committee meetings and one public hearing, all in the House. Only one OB/GYN — Dr. Joe Ellington, a member of the House from Mercer County — was brought in to give testimony. Lawmakers repeatedly introduced and amended the bill in ways that ensured the public couldn’t read it until their elected officials were set to move it.
Ann Ali, spokeswoman for the House, said lawmakers routinely have discussions among themselves and with constituents outside of the public eye.
“Members continued to give input on the bill and make changes to it as part of the legislative process often referred to as ‘working the bill,’ or ‘running the bill through the process,’” Ali said. “The public was not included on every communication the 134 legislators had with their constituents, personal and professional contacts, legislative staff or one another. But several lawmakers had obtained enough information and input, and/or seen enough of the bill in plenty of time to change how they voted between the July 29 version and Sept. 13 version.”
On Tuesday afternoon, the new abortion bill, a compromise between moderate and far-right Republicans, had been posted online for the public to read. Like previous versions, it outlawed almost all abortions, except when the procedure could save the life of the mother, or for victims of rape and incest under a narrow set of circumstances.
After 45 minutes, someone spotted a “drafting error,” which was attributed to the result of back and forth between the House and Senate as they drafted and tweaked the legislation. Blair called a recess and picked up the phone on his podium that connects directly to Hanshaw’s podium.
The bill, as it stood, required the delivery of the names of any doctor who performs an abortion — even legally — to the Legislature, which Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha and a physician, said was not the intention of the bill.
At his desk near the back of the chamber, Sen. Michael Azinger, R-Wood, was also on the phone, waving and shouting to get the attention of someone in the galleries above him who he was dialing.
That was Dennis Westover, a South Charleston resident who, like Azinger, attended the Jan. 6, 2021, protest in Washington, D.C., before the riot at the U.S. Capitol.
Westover was arrested near the U.S. Capitol three weeks after the Jan. 6 riot with a handgun, his will and a list of lawmakers and their contact information. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge for carrying an unlicensed pistol. His guilty plea was withdrawn after he completed the terms of a deferred sentencing agreement with community service.
Westover said he speaks to Azinger up to three or four times a month. On this call, Azinger was helping him to translate some of what was happening on the floor, and assuring him that the bill “had teeth,” he said, in spite of the lack of criminal penalties for doctors.
Azinger did not respond to a request for comment.
Forty minutes later, when the Senate came back into session, the protesters’ chants and horns could be clearly heard.
“The way those folks behaved out there in that lobby was reprehensible,” Westover said. “We’ve lost our ability to agree or even have civil discourse even if we disagree.”
Senators amended the bill so doctors who provide abortions wouldn’t have their names provided to the Legislature, and made other minor changes. Otherwise, they didn’t change the bill before they approved it and sent it to the House an hour later.
Tarr was the only Republican senator to oppose the bill. He said the bill should not have included any exemptions for victims of rape and incest.
“I’ve heard arguments, ‘If you got a burning building and you could save almost all the children, but not all of them, would you do it?’” Tarr said. “I’d burn the building.”
Just before the vote, Takubo said he wanted to address criticism of the legislative process that the bill had gone through.
“[It] was mentioned the voters should have a voice, and I would argue that they do,” he said. Outside the chamber, air horns, shouts and stomping feet could be heard through the closed Senate doors.
When the vote was counted, Blair adjourned the Senate “sine die,” a parliamentary maneuver that signaled to the House they’d either have to accept the bill as it was given to them, or risk killing it altogether.
Ali explained, “Senate members had been on the floor for quite some time, were balancing interim committee meetings, and had assurances from the House that a majority of members in that body would approve the bill as it arrived to them.“
Deflated protesters headed to the House galleries, most knowing it was all but certain the bill would pass that day.
Protesters repeatedly interrupted Del. Margitta Mazzochi, R-Logan, causing Hanshaw to briefly cut the public livestream audio.
“We have the chance to live a wonderful life. But life begins at conception, and I am glad that we are able to save so many babies,” Mazzochi said.
That was the phrase that enraged Rose Winland, development manager for the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia. Winland released a deep, guttural cry from the galleries:
“Our. Lives. Matter,” she grunted, over and over again, dragging out each word.
As doormen and capitol police tried removing Winland, others raised their fists and joined her chant, getting louder. They wouldn’t stop, and that was the last straw for Hanshaw.
“House will be at ease while the security clears the galleries,” he said.
Winland went limp and clung to the banister as officials tried to remove her.
After the abortion ban passed the House, a resolution — effectively, a statement without the power of law — was introduced by Del. Pat McGeehan, R-Hancock.
The resolution said that the abortion ban was just the beginning, even saying that the law should “designate as criminal” pro-abortion “propagandists.”
It also stated that, “it was formerly a wisdom common to all participants of the abortion debate that ‘no woman wants an abortion’, and that even those who otherwise promoted it unreservedly defended their position as one which granted women the capacity to escape some evil-such as poverty, social exclusion, or abuse.”
Delegates approved the resolution on a 66-17 vote, a move Del. Lisa Zukoff said after the session “was like, ‘We’re going to rub it in your face.’”
Outside the chamber, the remaining protesters booed and jeered lawmakers as they left through the double doors.
Inside, a small group of giddy Republicans, including some of the youngest members of the Legislature, gathered for a photo. Smiling widely near the front and center of the shot, Del. Caleb Hanna, R-Nicholas, said, “Just pro-life people celebrating children living.”
On Friday afternoon, the governor announced during a press briefing that he had signed the bill.
“It does protect life and that’s good stuff.”
Clarification: This story was updated on Sept. 18, 2022, to clarify the length of time the public audio feed from the House was turned off.
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