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W.Va. Lawmakers Consider 15-Week Abortion Ban

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Daniel Walker / WVPB
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Del. Ruth Rowan (R-Hampshire) is chair of the Senior, Children, and Family Issues House Committee.

Concerned citizens took to the podium on the floor of the House of Delegates this week at a public hearing regarding House Bill 4004, which would ban abortions performed after 15 weeks of pregnancy.

A Baptist preacher from Mason County, Bo Burgess, said he is pro-life and supports the measure.

“All of us here today have an impact and a role and an influence that we play in life. And if your mother or my mother chose to abort our lives, we wouldn't be here today,” Burgess said.

Eighty-year-old Kanawha County resident Rita Ray opposes the legislation. She said as a teenager she obtained an abortion in 1959, before the procedure was legal.

“History tells us that women will always find a way to terminate a pregnancy. The question is do you want West Virginia women and girls to get this procedure in medically safe conditions or will you drive them to desperate measures?” Ray said.

The local and regional chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union and Planned Parenthood also spoke out against the measure.

Del. Ruth Rowan (R-Hampshire County) is the lead sponsor of the bill. She said her daughter had a complicated pregnancy. Rowan’s grandson did survive and is now 17.

“I just think of how close we were to losing him and knowing how hard he fought to live and that just made me aware of just how precious life is,” Rowan said.

With a Republican supermajority in the statehouse, the bill has a good shot at becoming law. Democratic lawmakers say the legislation is a waste of time and resources that could be spent addressing COVID-19.

West Virginia Lawmakers Consider 15 Week Abortion Ban

Katie Quiñonez said West Virginia has a history of passing legislation that further restricts access to abortion. She is executive director of Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, the last abortion clinic in the state.

“It’s incredibly difficult to get an abortion in the state of West Virginia,” Quiñonez said.

West Virginia lawmakers have chipped away at abortion access for minors, rural residents seeking the abortion pill, and low-income women. Up until 2018, state Medicaid paid for the $500 to $1200 procedure. Now it doesn’t.

Quiñonez said these state mandates build on other time, financial and travel constraints.

“Not to mention the potential for a lost day’s work wages to come get your abortion, having to find childcare because we know the majority of people who access abortion are already parents themselves. And also, if you lack reliable transportation it can be incredibly difficult just to make it to the clinic to get the care that you need.”

Pro-choice advocates say these barriers are most apparent for minority, rural and low-income women. Nine out of ten West Virginia women live outside Kanawha County where the only abortion clinic is.

Women’s Health Center of West Virginia provided abortions for about 1,300 patients last year. But some abortions are performed in hospitals, usually under medically high-risk circumstances.

Dr. Anne Banfield is an OB-GYN at Davis Medical Center in Elkins and vice chair of the state American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which opposes House Bill 4004.

“Most women when they have reached that 15-week mark, beyond that they have been planning to have a pregnancy or they have chosen to continue a pregnancy,” Banfield said. “In many cases, they're now being met with news that’s not what anyone ever wants to hear. ”

The bill says an abortion is okay if a woman’s life is in danger or the fetus has no chance at surviving. But Banfield says those circumstances aren’t black and white — they’re complex and evolve over time. A doctor might delay abortion care to fall in line with state code, even if there are already signs that the pregnancy could become high-risk.

“Is it enough of an emergency now? Is this the time that it's the emergency that we need to deal with immediately? Or is it not? And those are situations that are very challenging,” Banfield said.

Other Republican controlled states have passed similar measures, but constitutional precedent set by Roe V. Wade has kept these laws from going into effect. Mississippi currently has a 15-week abortion ban on the books. The state cannot enforce it and instead has taken the case to the U.S. Supreme Court. A decision on that case is expected this summer.

Del. Moore Capito (R-Kanawha County) chairs the House Judiciary Committee, which is next to take up the bill. He said that legal limbo will be considered, to an extent.

“The outcome of that will have some impact on the disposition of this law, were it to carry through both bodies and be signed by the governor, but that’s not something novel we’ve done those things before. As far as going down a road, we go down roads all the time,” Capito said.

The bill’s sponsor sees no reason to wait.

“We need to start somewhere, and in saying that, Mississippi’s done it and we can do it too. And I feel the more people that can stand up for our children, our babies, the better,” Rowan said.

Pro-choice West Virginians will be standing up for reproductive rights this weekend. A rally is scheduled at the state capitol this Saturday at 1pm.

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

Appalachia Health News Reporter, jleffler@wvpublic.org, 502-377-0438, @june_leffler

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