A bill up for a final vote in West Virginia's Senate could make the state the first to pass new legislation restricting access to abortions after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling removing its protected status as a constitutional right.
Senators are set to meet Friday afternoon for a third reading of the bill, which some complained was not vetted in any of the chamber’s committees. If passed, it would head to the Republican governor, who has signaled he favors a statewide ban.
Gov. Jim Justice said during a media briefing earlier this week that the abortion bill “is so important, it’s off the chart. We need modernization to our law, and what we have on the books is ancient.” He didn’t indicate whether he would sign the bill that passed the House, and the governor’s office didn’t immediately return an email Thursday requesting comment on that version.
The House of Delegates passed the bill that would mandate prison time for medical providers who perform abortions earlier this week after allowing exemptions for victims of rape and incest up to 14 weeks of pregnancy.
The exemption also requires victims to report their assault to law enforcement. The bill provides other exceptions for an ectopic pregnancy, a “nonmedically viable fetus” or a medical emergency.
The vote in the GOP-dominated House on Wednesday came amid a protest from dozens inside the Capitol and followed a raucous public hearing in which most speakers — given just 45 seconds each to voice their opinions or be cut off — opposed the bill.
A parade of 90 speakers stepped to the microphone, including 12-year-old Addison Gardner of Buffalo Middle School, who posed a vivid hypothetical situation for lawmakers.
“If a man decides that I’m an object and does unspeakable and tragic things to me, am I, a child, supposed to carry and birth another child?" she said. "Am I to put my body through the physical trauma of pregnancy? Am I to suffer the mental implications? A child who had no say in what was being done with my body. Some in here say they are pro-life. What about my life? Does my life not matter to you?”
The legislation advancing in a special session called by Justice to “clarify and modernize” the state's abortion laws would make providing an abortion a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.
After the Supreme Court ruling in June, West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said abortion was banned in the state because of an 1800s-era law that had been unenforceable while abortion was federally protected. But on July 18, a Charleston judge barred the state from enforcing the ban, ruling it had been superseded by a slew of conflicting modern laws such as a ban on abortion after 20 weeks.
During hours of House debate, the sound of screams and chants from protesters outside the chamber rang throughout the room. “Face us!” the crowd yelled.
“What’s ringing in my ears is not the noise of the people here,” said one of the bill’s supporters, Republican Del. Brandon Steele of Raleigh County. “It’s the cries of the unborn, tens of thousands of unborn children that are dead today. ... Their blood screams from the ground today that you end this scar on our state, that you remove this curse from this land that was put upon us by a court so long ago.”
Some of those speaking at the public hearing cried, including a woman who said getting an abortion saved her life and a mother who said her teenage daughter was raped last year at a sleepover.
Women’s Health Center of West Virginia Executive Director Katie Quiñonez was cut off and asked to step down as she started to talk about the abortion she got when she was 17 and just months from graduating high school.
“I chose life,” she said, raising her voice to speak over the interruption. “I chose my life, because my life is sacred.”
As security approached to escort her away from the podium, she walked past them, down the chamber aisle and out the doors. People sitting in the gallery stood up to clap and cheer.
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