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Appalachia Health News tells the story of our health challenges and how we overcome them throughout the region. 

Pro-Choice West Virginians Uneasy Over U.S. Supreme Court Case

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Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of the retrodictive rights group WV FREE, stands outside the U.S. Supreme Court as it hears a critical abortion case.

All eyes turned to the U.S. Supreme Court Wednesday as justices heard arguments on a case that could reshape abortion laws across the nation.

The case, Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, asks the highest court to uphold Mississippi’s ban on abortions after 15 weeks gestation.

Loree Stark with The American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia said the case is a direct challenge to Roe V. Wade, which established a women’s constitutional right to an abortion in 1973.

“If the state of Mississippi succeeds today in that ask to overturn Roe, it is a matter of when, not if, other states across the country will pass legislation to make abortion inaccessible,” Stark said.

Abortion opponents hope the Supreme Court will uphold the law. West Virginia's Attorney General Patrick Morrisey and 23 other states issued briefs in support of Mississippi.

“Our Constitution should never have been interpreted in a way that lets it override the states’ compelling interest to protect innocent life,” Morrisey said in a statement.

Other conservative state legislatures have passed laws that ban abortion at a certain point of pregnancy. These laws have been routinely blocked by the courts.

But earlier this year, the court did not block a 6-week ban in Texas. The Texas law now hangs in legal limbo, but remains in effect.

“This is why advocates are sounding the alarm. This is why we are in a red alert moment for reproductive freedom,” said Alisa Clements, the director of Public Affairs for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic.

Wanda Franz with West Virginians for Life is not emboldened by the court’s decision on the Texas law. That court ruling was more about procedure, not the merits of Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court said this is a matter for the state courts and did not rule on the constitutionality of the law or limit further challenges to it.

“It's all down the road, it's probably years away, in terms of what's going to happen with the Texas case,” Franz said.

For that reason, she said she has no interest in asking lawmakers to push through a 6-week ban, also known as a heartbeat bill, saying that would be a legal minefield. Some Republican lawmakers, however, have expressed interest. Instead she’s bringing forward a bill that would outlaw abortions soley based on the potential that the child might have Down syndrome.

“The mother's perfectly healthy, the baby is perfectly healthy, except for the disability, and to have abortions under those situations is just wrong,” Franz said.

The Mississippi case is different, arguing directly on whether abortion should be left up to state legsilatures, not the Roe v. Wade decision. If the court favor’s Mississippi’s arguments, Franz thinks she’d have a wider playbook.

“After next summer, we will then know what's possible. We'll find out whether in fact we can do the legislative work that the state legislators are eager to do,” Franz said.

Franz has been a long-time pro-life activist, since before the Roe v. Wade decision. She does not hedge her bets early, understanding that court battles are often drawn out.

But Wednesday’s arguments and questioning from the justices has her optimistic.

“I think that there may be a majority on the court that believes that they really should not be adjudicating this from a constitutional basis, but rather that it is a matter for legislation,” Franz said.

Abortion Laws in West Virignia

Republicans have chipped away at abortion rights for years in West Virignia. West Virginians for Life has a good track record of getting legislation passed.

Katie Quinonez is director of Women’s Health Center of West Virginia in Charleston, the only abortion clinic in the state. She sees the direct impact these laws have had on her practice and patients.

“We have numerous unnecessary restrictions,” she said.

Minors need parental consent to get an abortion. Women can’t use telehealth options to get the abortion pill, even though the state has expanded telehealth services for most other care. And Medicaid, the insurance for a third of West Virginians, can no longer be used to pay for an abortion.

“Abortion is already incredibly difficult for people to access ... West Virginia is a rural state that lacks a robust public transportation system. Abortion is more than just the out of pocket cost of the procedure. It's the last day's wages at work. It's the cost of childcare. It's the cost of transportation and sometimes lodging,” Quinonez said.

In 2018, voters narrowly approved Amendment 1, which added language to the state’s constitution saying abortion is not a guaranteed right. That could come into play if things change on the federal level.

Planned Parenthood is already preparing for a day when abortion is illegal in the Mountain State.

“We are also preparing, at our entire affiliate, to take on patients. We have Virginia and North Carolina as our two states that can take abortion patients should we have a total ban on abortion in West Virginia,” Clements said.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.


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