West Virginia lawmakers moved an abortion bill to the brink of passage, but disagreements led both houses to adjourn until another time without a final resolution.
Both the House and Senate stayed until Friday night before adjourning to an indefinite later date. The evening ended with the majority of the House disagreeing with the changes made by the Senate and calling for a conference committee to settle the differences. Then they returned home.
So after a week of disagreements, protests, anger and policymaking, nothing is set.
Before everyone left on Friday night, West Virginia senators passed a 21-10 abortion-restricting bill, with some in the Republican majority voting in favor, even though they said it won’t. not far enough. They hoped the delegates would tighten it up.
“I’m going to vote yes to send that paper tiger back to the House,” said Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, who said the bill was not restrictive enough as passed.
On a long Friday evening, senators made significant changes from what was passed by the House of Delegates earlier this week.
The biggest change resulted from an 18-13 vote to remove criminal penalties for medical providers from the bill. If the bill passes in this final form, state policies on abortion would be enforced through licensing.
The Senate also reduced to 8 weeks the period during which abortion would be authorized in cases of rape or incest. The bill passed by the House of Delegates allowed abortions within 14 weeks in these circumstances.
Senate consideration of the bill continued through Friday evening after Governor Jim Justice unexpectedly added the issue to a special session on Monday. Senate Speaker Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, ordered the galleries to be cleared of onlookers after several verbal outbursts.
Senators took what delegates passed earlier this week and amended an entirely new bill to it. Senators then considered several amendments to this amendment.
Tarr and some other Republicans have suggested that removing criminal penalties weakens the bill. Republicans who took this position said they had already reluctantly accepted some exceptions for rape and incest because it would increase the overall chance of passage.
“This is not a pro-life bill; it’s a pro-abortion bill,” said Sen. Robert Karnes, R-Randolph, blaming some of his party colleagues who had pushed to soften his policies. “It was done by this party.”
Karnes said delegates could come back with something more restrictive “but if they do, it won’t go through this body.”
Other Republican majority members who expressed dissatisfaction with the changes also said they hoped delegates would make it more restrictive.
“If I decide to vote for this legislation, it is in the hope that the other party (delegates) can improve it,” said Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson, who ended up voting against it.
After the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Roe v. Wade federal abortion guarantee and returned policy decisions to the states, West Virginia lawmakers tackled the abortion bill in a special session this week.
West Virginia had a criminal abortion law dating back to the 1800s that had not been enforced after Roe v. Wade – as well as new abortion regulations that assumed the procedure was restricted but legal.
A court battle has already begun over whether these abortion laws are so conflicting that they cannot be reconciled.
The bill passed by the Senate does not allow abortion at any time during pregnancy, except in certain limited circumstances. In recent years, West Virginia law had permitted abortion up to 20 weeks gestation.
As Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, explained the Senate version called the Unborn Child Protect Act, he said “he’s trying to say that the new law, the new section would replace all of these old laws”.
West Virginia law in the 1800s punished abortion with three to 10 years’ imprisonment, and the House bill retained that for medical providers.
The Senate bill makes abortion subject to revocation of licensure for medical providers following an amendment by Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha. Takubo, a physician, feared the threat of incarceration would chill the work of obstetrician-gynecologists in West Virginia.
Now, Takubo has said, “They will lose their license, and that’s an extremely important consequence.”
The bill allows exceptions for a non-medically viable fetus, an ectopic pregnancy, which is when a fertilized egg implants and grows outside the main cavity of the uterus, or a medical emergency, excluding psychological or mental health situations.
There are exceptions in cases of rape or incest for adults during the first eight weeks of pregnancy if the abortion patient reported the sexual assault to a law enforcement agency or obtained treatment from a licensed medical provider.
These exceptions extend to 14 weeks for minors or incompetent adults during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy resulting from sexual assault or incest. In these cases, the patient will need to report the assault to law enforcement or a government agency authorized to act in cases of child abuse – or if the patient has obtained medical treatment for the assault from a licensed healthcare professional.
The bill clarifies that several things are not considered an abortion: miscarriage, stillbirth, use of established cell lines or research on human fetal tissue, in vitro fertilization or contraceptives.
Most Democrats opposed passage of the bill and its restrictions.
“I think we have to understand that this (bill) is not an abortion for poor women,” said Sen. Hannah Geffert, D-Berkeley. “Poor women in the state won’t have a choice because they can’t afford to go anywhere else.”
Sen. Owens Brown, D-Ohio, suggested the male-dominated Senate should not decide these issues.
“Why should 30 men in this room make the decision for 500,000 pregnant women?”