The Senate Judiciary Committee meets on Wednesday evening. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

Gov. Jim Justice has extended the legislative session for one day to pass the budget. Also, a ban on gender-affirming care will soon be up for final passage, an update to the state’s abortion ban faces an uncertain future and EMS agencies are calling for state funding.

But first, a couple of proposals to ban child marriage and spousal rape died in a contentious evening meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Invoking International Women’s Day, senators reject child marriage ban, proposal to outlaw spousal rape

(Shortly after publication, Sen. Trump made a motion on the Senate floor to pull the bill to outlaw child marriage from his own committee. That motion passed 21-11, and the bill was advanced to third read with the right to amend.)

A bill to outlaw child marriage in West Virginia is likely dead. West Virginia leads the nation in marriages involving people under 18; most of those marriages are to a legal adult.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Kayla Young, D-Kanawha, spoke to the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday night on the importance of the bill.

“The data that we’ve seen shows there’s been 41 marriages that would have violated our [statutory] rape laws because one of the children was under 16,” Young said. “Right now the age of consent for sex is 16. The age of marriage is zero. There’s no floor.”

Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, moved to table the bill, which would have effectively killed it without a formal vote. That motion failed. With little discussion on its substance, the committee narrowly voted down the legislation, 8-9.

By the same 8-9 margin, members of the committee voted to remove a clause from a strike-and-insert amendment to a separate bill that would have closed a loophole in West Virginia law that currently makes many instances of spousal rape legal in West Virginia.

The amendment proposed by Sen. Charles Trump, R-Morgan, would have inserted the spousal rape ban into a bill making it a crime to solicit adult members of law enforcement presenting themselves as minors online.

The bill’s sponsor, Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, said he supported a ban on spousal rape, but warned committee members that the provision could backfire. If lawmakers added it to the bill, the measure would return to the House for approval and could prove divisive. 

Debate was long. Sen. Vince Deeds, R-Greenbrier, urged the inclusion of the spousal rape ban, citing his experience in law enforcement seeing multiple cases go unpunished. Sen. Chandler Swope, R-Mercer, warned that he believed the ban would lead to a flood of false accusations of rape in divorce cases.

In one of his strongest speeches this session, Trump urged the committee to ignore the possibility of the bill failing in the House in the hope of fixing a loophole in West Virginia law he called “wrong — morally wrong.”

“I hope with all my heart that the committee will not be swayed with the siren song of, ‘oh a woman might make a false accusation,’” Trump added. “So what? If the woman makes a false accusation, the police aren’t gonna charge it. They’re gonna investigate it.” Trump noted that the U.S. justice system still requires guilt to be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.

Ultimately, the amendment failed, meaning the loophole allowing marital rape will stay in West Virginia law.

The committee meeting coincided with International Women’s Day, and several of the lawmakers who voted to ban child marriage and spousal rape noted the fact. But so did Sens. Rucker and Laura Walkim Chapman, R-Ohio, who voted against the marriage bill and the rape amendment. 

“One of the things about celebrating women, discussing women is for way too long women were sidelined, were not given a voice, were not given a role, basically had others speak for us. And I will tell you I do not appreciate that there are others speaking for me,” Rucker said. “The two women that are in this committee are in favor of the amendment to the amendment and I don’t know how you can claim that we want women to be abused, raped or anything else.”

—Ian Karbal

Ban on gender-affirming care up for final passage tomorrow

Opponents of HB 2007, to ban gender-affirming care for West Virginia youth, rallied at the Capitol on Thursday, March 9, 2023. Photo by Ian Karbal

A bill that would ban West Virginia doctors from prescribing hormones like puberty blockers or performing gender-affirming surgery to youth in the state is up for final passage in the Senate tomorrow. These treatments are recognized by medical professionals as an effective way to treat people with gender dysphoria, where their sex assigned at birth doesn’t match their identity. Sen. Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, requested the bill be moved to third reading with the right to amend, which means senators could still offer amendments on Friday. 

For the second time so far this session, opponents of the bill rallied at the Capitol Thursday afternoon. One of them was Hurricane native Oliver Lovejoy, who said he has benefitted from gender-affirming hormones but was unable to access them until leaving his family home. 

“You don’t have to go through years of pain to figure out why you feel this about yourself, and just know that there’s options,” he said. “I was always told from a very young age that you’re committing a sin, so I never got to explore that.”

—Ian Karbal

Abortion ban update faces uncertain future

The House Health and Human Resource Committee meets earlier this session. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

A bill that would immunize West Virginia’s abortion ban against an ongoing lawsuit faces a more uncertain future after a House Health and Human Resources Committee meeting this afternoon.

The bill would add what’s called a “severability clause” to the abortion ban that Women’s Health Center is pushing to overturn in a lawsuit against the state.

That lawsuit targets a specific part of the recent law requiring abortions to be performed in hospitals, which Women’s Health Center argues explicitly targeted their clinic, the only abortion provider in the state. The severability clause would allow the rest of the abortion ban to stand, even if that part of it is found unconstitutional.

The bill would also require doctors to encourage women seeking legal abortions to carry non-viable pregnancies to term and remove a requirement that providers tell patients that a medication that can reverse medical abortions for a short time after they’ve begun — a practice many doctors and medical experts say can have serious health consequences — is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

But it’s a separate part of the bill that could potentially stall the bill with less than three full days left in the session: a 24/7 hotline to give this information to women considering abortions. An estimated $600,000 price tag, according to previous committee testimony, gave several delegates, including House Health and Human Resources Vice-chair, Del. Heather Tully, R-Nicholas, pause.

She noted lawmakers had already balked at a foster care portal that was estimated to cost at least $800,000 and could have helped thousands of children in foster care. This hotline would potentially be used by far fewer people; according to a lobbyist for the anti-abortion group, West Virginians for Life, there have only been five abortions in the state since the ban.

Ultimately, the committee recommended the bill go to the Finance Committee, but with a Republican supermajority, the bill could still clear that committee and pass the full House before the end of session. —Ian Karbal

EMS agencies call for state funding as session nears end

EMS workers gather outside the West Virginia Capitol as they wait to hear whether a key bill will move forward. Photo by Ellie Heffernan

West Virginia emergency service service providers have been calling for state funding for several legislative sessions as scores of workers continue to leave, largely due to poor pay. 

This session, lawmakers have introduced nearly a dozen bills to ease the financial burdens on EMS agencies, but only two pieces of legislation still stand a good chance of becoming law. One would create a fund to improve salaries at local agencies.  The other would provide funding for equipment and training. Both will likely be up for passage tomorrow.

Read more on why EMS workers keep leaving the profession and what lawmakers are considering to fix the issue.

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