CHARLESTON — Out of 17 total speakers, five men were the lone voices of support during a public hearing on Monday for a piece of legislation that would further limit abortion access in West Virginia.
House Bill 4004 would ban abortions, except in cases of medical emergency or “severe fetal abnormality,” at 15 weeks. Current state law outlaws abortions past 20 weeks. The only abortion care provider in the state, the West Virginia Women’s Health Center, offers abortions until the 16-week mark.
Last week, Republican lawmakers in the House committee on Health and Human Resources voted down amendments that would have made exceptions for sexual assault and incest, as well as changed language to be more inclusive and in-line with other sections of code.
The bill — which passed the House committee on Health and Human Resources on party lines on Thursday — is nearly identical to a Mississippi law currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court, with a decision expected to come this summer.
“The bill before this Legislature, if passed and enacted, would fly in the face of longstanding, established legal precedent … If the state of Mississippi seeks to support that law today, it would be doing so in the face of constitutional precedent,” said Loree Stark, legal director at the West Virginia arm of the American Civil Liberties Union.
“This (in West Virginia) is a Legislature that has often not been too concerned with its obligations under the constitution, but regardless, those obligations exist.”
The bill — like Mississippi’s — goes beyond precedent set in 1973 by Roe v. Wade and in 1992 by Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Those rulings hold that states cannot ban abortions before the point of fetal viability — when a fetus can survive outside of a womb, which is widely considered by the medical community to be around 24 weeks of gestation — and that laws that do restrict access to abortions cannot pose an “undue burden.”
Stark said if the bill passes the Legislature, it will be at the risk of litigation and “great cost” to the state.
During Monday’s public hearing, speakers each had two minutes to share their thoughts on the proposed law, as well as on House Bill 4005 — which would make it illegal to transport or sell “fetal body parts,” which is already banned by federal code — with most criticizing both. The five men who spoke in support of the bill classified themselves as faith leaders and “private citizens.”
Delegate Ruth Rowan, R-Hampshire, who is the lead sponsor of the bill, said she was “not surprised” to see the only proponents of the bill who spoke Monday be men.
“I know at home there are a lot of women who feel the same as I do on this,” Rowan said.
Delegate Danielle Walker, D-Monongalia, said she walked away from Monday’s hearing “feeling numb.”
“I will say it: the only people who came out today in support of these bills were all white men. This is not about health care, it is not about life, it is about control. Control over our bodies and choices,” Walker said. “All Mountaineers are supposed to be free, but those who have uteruses, we still have shackles on our body, our mind and our uteruses.”
Rita Ray, 80, spoke against the 15-week abortion ban. In 1959, more than a decade before the passage of Roe and when such medical services were illegal in her home state of Kentucky, she received an abortion in an alley after dark.
There, she met a woman waiting outside a door, who took her to do the procedure, then sent her to a motel where she spent the rest of the night recuperating alone.
“It was a nightmare, a horrible night. I survived that dangerous experience, but many did not. Too many girls died needlessly because they were denied safe, reproductive health care,” Ray said. “History tells us that women will always find a way to terminate a pregnancy. The question is do you want West Virginian women and girls to get this procedure in a safe medical environment, or drive them to get dangerous procedures?”
Many speakers against both HB 4004 and HB 4005 urged legislators to put their focus on more pressing issues for West Virginians. Nationally, the state holds the highest rate of fatal drug overdoses, the most children per capita in the foster care system and some of the worst health outcomes for cancer and chronic illnesses.
“Lawmakers should be focused on addressing COVID-19, expanding access to health care, fixing crumbling infrastructure and so much more. Not dismantling our rights,” said Kim Smith, president of the Kanawha Valley chapter of the National Organization for Women.
Frank Hartman, a registered lobbyist with the West Virginia chapter of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, said the group and doctors within it strongly opposed the legislation and any further moves to restrict abortion access in West Virginia.
“Medically unjustified regulation forces doctors to practice medicine counter to the best interest of the patients and the best available evidence,” Hartman said. “Bans on abortion tie the hands of doctors, forcing them to make untenable choices and break the law. No physician should be treated like a criminal (for performing medicine).”
Those on both sides of the issue seem to agree on one thing: the 15-week ban is bound to pass the Legislature and become state law this session.
“We know what the numbers are and they (Republicans) have made their stance clear,” said Delegate Kayla Young, D-Kanawha.
“This will definitely pass, I have no doubt there,” Rowan said.
Both HB 4004 and HB 4005 are set to be brought up by the House committee on Judiciary, though they are not on the agenda for Tuesday’s meeting.