By Ron Gregory
CHARLESTON — In a gathering that had the tone of an old-fashioned camp meeting, about 300 people gathered on the statehouse lawn Tuesday evening to urge state legislators and Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to resuscitate the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.
Ministers prayed and other right-to-lifers offered impassioned pleas for Tomblin and the legislature to approve the bill a second time. Legislators overwhelmingly approved the measure during their most recent regular session but Tomblin vetoed it last week.
The bill was designed to protect fetuses after 20 weeks of gestation. Pro-life advocates, including West Virginians for Life, maintain that a baby can feel pain in the womb once it reaches the 20-week mark. They say there is sufficient medical evidence to warrant that conclusion. Basically, the bill would have outlawed abortions on such fetuses, except for medical emergencies where a doctor determined that the life of the mother or baby was in danger.
The bill sparked emotional debate in the legislature before it was eventually approved. Pro-choice groups maintain that the bill would have made health-care providers “felons” if they performed an abortion beyond 20 weeks. They said there is not sufficient evidence to prove that a 20-week fetus can feel pain. They also argued that exceptions to the new law would have made it virtually impossible for the traditional doctor-patient relationship to be maintained.
The bill has become a campaign issue, with pro-life groups labeling many Democrat legislators who have always claimed to be pro-life as pro-choice because they refused to discharge the original bill from the House Health Committee. Those who opposed the discharge argue that they were simply re-enforcing tradition in the House and supporting their leadership team.
But Tuesday evening, those in the audience and at the podium were not buying that argument.
Speaker after speaker lampooned Tomblin and most who led prayers asked that “God touch the heart of Governor Tomblin and change him.” Some even urged that God “save the governor if he is not saved.”
Melody Potter of Kanawha County, one of the early speakers at the 8 p.m. event, asked that “the Holy Spirit alter his (Tomblin’s) heart. She quoted II Chronicles 7:14 and called for U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat, to co-sponsor similar legislation on the national level.”
She closed, as did most of the others, with “thank you, Jesus.”
The group sang the traditional spiritual, “Amazing Grace” before other ministers stepped to the microphone to speak and pray. Members of the audience generally stood silently, holding candles in remembrance of what they said were the seven West Virginia babies aborted past 20 weeks last year. An occasional “amen” or “praise God” was heard from the crowd.
Pastor Jay Arne of the Maranatha Fellowship told God he did not believe Tomblin “has been convicted” and asked for a “visitation of the Most High to show him the error of his ways.”
Basically, all those speaking and praying were seeking support for an effort to either override Tomblin’s veto by the legislature or call a special session to pass the bill again. John Carey, legislative director for Right to Life, said he would begin visiting legislators Wednesday. He later said his desire is that the legislators call a special session to deal with the bill, rather than seeking an override of Tomblin’s veto.
In his veto message, the governor claimed the bill, as passed, is unconstitutional. But speakers Tuesday evening disputed that assertion. Carey said the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill similar to West Virginia’s. “They must not think it’s unconstitutional,” he said.
Pastor Mike Hager of the Faith Missionary Baptist Church quoted from the Book of Ruth, saying “God gave conception to Boaz and Ruth.” He specifically called upon God, in his prayer, to “bring the legislature back into session to either override the veto or pass a bill that You will have Governor Tomblin sign.” He asked the Lord to “save Governor Tomblin from blood guiltness.”
Leanna Roe, associate pastor of the Dunbar Church of God, said Tomblin’s veto, “broke your (God’s) heart; teach Governor Tomblin that it is better to please God than the good old boys.”
Kristen Hawkins, president of the national Students for Life, served as mistress of ceremonies for the evening.
The evening concluded as those in attendance remained on the lawn, singing traditional hymns under the watchful eye of Capitol security police. No incidents were reported and the group did not attempt to walk on to the governor’s mansion property, as previous reports had said they would.
The group held a press conference earlier in the day in the Capitol rotunda.