A speaker during a public hearing on HB 2007 on Thursday. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

A new federal lawsuit is attempting to overturn West Virginia’s abortion ban passed into law last year. But first, the House chamber was packed this morning for a public hearing about HB 2007, a bill that would ban gender-affirming care for minors in West Virginia.

West Virginians speak out against trans health care ban

Thursday morning, in front of hundreds of people in the West Virginia House of Delegates Chamber, a transgender West Virginian named Damien Eplin stood behind the lectern and asked for state lawmakers’ attention.

“I want you to look at me and see who you are affecting,” Eplin said. “I don’t know why you care about my body so much. I don’t know why you want to hurt me.”

Eplin was one of dozens of West Virginians who spoke at a public hearing and voiced their opposition to HB 2007, a bill that would ban doctors from providing transgender youth with gender-affirming hormones or surgery in the state. They were joined by Christian religious leaders, public school teachers, licensed and aspiring physicians, elected officials, former House delegates and transgender kids and adults in their call for the state to kill the bill.

“Jesus accepted eunuchs, gender diverse people, and welcomed them into the kingdom of heaven,” said Megan Gandy, a WVU social work professor. “Jesus accepted transgender people. Why don’t you? Do you know better than Jesus?”

When the bill came before the House Health and Human Resources Committee in mid-January, it proposed banning West Virginia doctors from performing gender-affirming surgery to anyone under 18. The bill’s proponents say that because the procedures are irreversible, it’s irresponsible to allow children to get them; critics of it argue that the surgeries of this type on minors are extremely rare across the country and the measure would further stigmatize the LGBTQ+ community. 

“HB 2007 is a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,” Andrew Schneider, the Fairness West Virginia executive director, wrote in a public statement at the time. “And while lawmakers waste taxpayer time and money on bills attacking kids, they’re ignoring the real harms to LGBTQ youth.”

But the legislation has since morphed. At a review in the House Judiciary Committee, Republican delegates expanded the ban to also prohibit doctors from prescribing gender-affirming hormones to children. These hormones are sometimes prescribed to suppress puberty, which can lead to severe psychological distress, depression and suicide. Studies have found that this kind of gender-affirming hormonal therapy improves mental health and reduces stress among transgender people, all the way down to the biological level. 

The bill’s lead sponsor, Del. Geoff Foster, R-Putnam, didn’t attend the public hearing, citing a scheduling conflict. He said afterwards that he does not think there is evidence that gender affirming hormones have long term benefits at reducing suicide for transgender children.

“If you read the documentation and psychological studies on it, it’s very conflicting,” he said. 

Despite the overwhelming testimony against the bill, delegates advanced it after the public hearing. It’s set for final passage in the House tomorrow, after which it will head to the Senate.

For Hannah Hoffman, a 17-year-old transgender West Virginian from Elkview, being able to share their experience with lawmakers was valuable, even if it isn’t enough to stop the bill from passing. Hoffman’s statement was read for them by a speaker from the American Civil Liberties Union, while Hoffman listened from nearby. 

“She really captured how much I love the people I’m around,” Hoffman said, motioning to some of the other young trans West Virginians who came to the hearing. “I really feel like she did me justice.”

—Allen Siegler

New lawsuit seeks to overturn abortion ban

Protesters outside the West Virginia Governor’s Mansion in September 2022, one day before lawmakers passed a near-total abortion ban. Credit: Duncan Slade

A new federal lawsuit is attempting to overturn West Virginia’s recently-enacted abortion ban. 

The lawsuit was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court on behalf of the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, which before the ban, was the state’s only practicing abortion clinic. The center’s lead physician, listed as John Doe, is also a plaintiff. It has been assigned to Judge Irene Berger.

Attorneys for Doe and the Women’s Health Center are targeting two very specific provisions in the law that  they argue unfairly targets their clients: that abortions be provided in a hospital rather than in an outpatient setting, and that doctors performing the procedure have “hospital privileges.” 

Citing numerous statistics, the lawsuit argues that abortions are a safer medical procedure than many currently allowed to be done in outpatient facilities, and that the argument for singling out one procedure is “lacking any sound scientific or medical basis.”

Bolstering their argument that Women’s Health Center was unfairly targeted are a legislator’s own words when debating the bill on the floor.

Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph, is quoted discussing the law’s clause only allowing doctors with hospital privileges to perform abortions. “I believe that maneuver, more than anything else that we’ve done, is what’s going to shut down the abortion clinic here in West Virginia, and it’s the only one we have,” he said in debate on the abortion-banning bill.

“They never even asked me for my autograph,” Karnes joked in an interview on Thursday. “People all the time have laws that only affect a certain portion of the populations or certain activities.”

Ashish P. Sheth and Matthew Christiansen, the West Virginia Board of Medicine’s President and Secretary, respectively, were named as defendants; the board’s executive director declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation. 

While the lawsuit filed on behalf of the Women’s Health Center only targets one portion of the bill, it notes the law has what’s known as a “non-severability clause” that states that if any part of the law is found unconstitutional, the whole law must be repealed.

In this case, that would mean a return to a law written in the 19th century and found unconstitutional, but never removed from the books, that says abortion is punishable by up to 10 years in prison. That law was also challenged by the West Virginia ACLU, and a judge issued an injunction last summer, but the case stalled when lawmakers moved to pass the new abortion ban. 

West Virginia ACLU Managing Attorney Aubrey Sparks says the end game is to overturn the law and keep abortion access open. “The main thing is that we know that abortion care is necessary,” Sparks said. “We just want to make sure West Virginians still have access to the medical care that they’ve been receiving for decades.” —Ian Karbal

Allen Siegler is the public health reporter for Mountain State Spotlight. He can be reached at (681) 317-7571.

Ian Karbal is a Report for America corps member, and the state government watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.