The West Virginia House of Delegates has passed a bill that would penalize physicians who don't provide medical care to a fetus that survives an unsuccessful abortion. Minority Democrats called the measure an election year political stunt that accomplishes nothing, but many voted for the measure anyway.
House Bill 4007, known as the Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, passed on a 93-5 vote. The proposal calls on doctors to use “reasonable medical judgement” in the event of an unsuccessful abortion.
In the lead-up to Wednesday’s vote, various groups supporting abortion rights and their lobbyists sent a letter to lawmakers urging them to vote against the bill. But, each group’s position was more nuanced than that.
West Virginia Free and the state chapter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said they would appreciate no votes but completely understand those who supported the bill.
The ACLU of West Virginia took a similar position — saying they opposed the bill but wouldn’t target those who voted for it in the upcoming election cycle.
But Planned Parenthood Votes South Atlantic explicitly said they encourage opposition to the bill and will be informing supporters of lawmakers’ votes.
As debate on House Bill 4007 carried on Wednesday, a mix of those sentiments informed Democrats’ floor speeches. Del. John Doyle, D-Jefferson, began discussion on the measure.
“This bill does absolutely nothing. It proposes to make illegal something that is already illegal,” Doyle said. “I think it makes absolutely no difference how I vote or how anyone else votes on this bill. It shouldn't be here because it does nothing.”
Tom Fast, R-Fayette, argued that the measure was necessary to protect life. He painted the picture of a situation a doctor might face should a fetus be delivered alive following an unsuccessful abortion procedure.
“When you have a live baby that was just born — regardless of what the intent was moments prior, but when you have that live baby laying on the table — what you don't do is have a doctor say well we'll just have a discussion with a mother and see what to do,” Fast said. “That's what you don't do. You help that child, you work with that child. You give that child medical care, just like if it were your daughter or your son laying on that table. You give that child that person do medical care. That's what this bill does.”
Del. Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia, read veto messages from governors in Montana, North Carolina and Wisconsin related to similar measures. He noted that the head of WVU’s Medicine’s OBGYN department says the chance of this bill affecting West Virginians is “extremely small.”
Hansen also argued that other issues should take priority this early in the legislative session.
“Yesterday, I attended the hunger caucus meeting. People from both parties were there and we learned that one in five kids in West Virginia – kids that were actually born alive – are hungry,” Hansen said. “But we're not addressing that in the first week of the session.”
Del. Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, also focused on the divisive nature of the issue. In the end, Pushkin voted in support of the bill.
“It's ridiculous and it's sick to use this as a political tool. I think that the goal of this bill is to get a few of us to vote against it so you can run these ads,” Pushkin said. “Personally, I don't think it changes the standard of care. I'm pro-choice. I think I'll still be pro choice after I don't fall into your trap."
Del. Sammi Brown, D-Jefferson, questioned House Health and Human Resources Chairman Jordan Hill, R-Nicholas, about the science behind the underlying issue. She pointed out that the only abortion provider in West Virginia self-imposes a ban on the procedure after 16 weeks of gestation and that state law prohibits the procedure after 20 weeks. Brown noted that a fetus is unable to survive at such an early stage.
She wrapped up her comments on the bill by arguing that House Bill 4007 a political maneuver.
“I'm all for policy that will protect mothers, that will protect infants, that will protect life. But this simply isn't it,” Brown said. “It is my charge — and yours — to protect individuals within your respective communities, not disenfranchise them and not play to a rhetoric that is intended to divide us all.”
Assistant Majority Leader Del. Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette, closed debate on the measure by offering a gruesome story about an abortion provider in another state. She argued his practice highlights the need for House Bill 4007.
“Not too long ago — a few years ago — Kermit Gosnell in our neighboring state of Pennsylvania and was found guilty of murdering babies after birth. He literally snipped their spinal cords left them on a table and literally put the heads of those babies in the refrigerator, where his where his staff kept their lunch,” said Kessinger, citing films about Gosnell. “My goal in West Virginia is to make sure that doesn't happen.”
The Born Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act was opposed by five Democrats. Four of those five votes against the bill came from delegates representing the 51st District, which covers most of Monongalia County.
HB 4007 now heads to the Senate for consideration.