Most abortions halted in West Virginia after lawmakers pass near-blank ban

CHARLESTON, WV — On Tuesday morning, West Virginians could have elective abortions in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.

At 5 p.m., the state legislature voted to ban nearly all abortions from the moment a fertilized egg implants in the uterus. The governor has yet to sign the bill into law, but has said he will.

The legislation has abortion providers scrambling to adjust to the new reality.

The state’s only abortion clinic in Charleston, West Virginia announced on its website Wednesday morning that it would no longer perform the procedure.

“West Virginians will now have to leave their homes hundreds or even thousands of miles and incur huge costs to get necessary life-saving care,” Katie Quiniones, executive director of West Virginia Women’s Health, said in a statement. .”

There was an empty parking lot at the Women’s Health Center on Wednesday. A printed sign on the door said the wellness center was “closed for employee breaks” and would be open the next day. Across the street, a crisis pregnancy center run by anti-abortion advocates remains open to patients.

Around lunchtime, Elizabeth Gill, 56, who often protests as a lifetime member of West Virginians, entered the clinic. But no women sought abortions for her.

Gill, who was adopted, said she welcomed the new ban, although she opposed exceptions for victims of rape or incest. The ban allows adult victims of rape or incest to have abortions up to 8 weeks’ gestation, and child victims up to 14 weeks’ gestation. She also said she wanted the Women’s Health Center closed forever.

“Babies have God-given rights to live their lives and fulfill God’s purpose for them,” she said.

Austin Walters, who lived next door to the clinic for about six years and endured numerous noisy anti-abortion protests, said he opposed the new ban. The 30-year-old, who works at Home Depot, said he expects the ban to drive young people out of the state and potentially hurt the economy.

“The government or legislators should not have control over women’s bodies,” he said. “It’s an issue that the government needs to stay out of the way.”

Another resident, Betty Jo Stemple, who lives near the abortion clinic, said she strongly believes abortion should be an option for women in early pregnancy and in cases of rape or incest. She said she had an abortion decades ago after she was raped in her 20s.

“When I missed the second period, I knew I had to make a choice,” said Staples, 61.

She said she didn’t want to have a child “with those evil genes.” “I don’t want this stuff growing in me.”

Like many Americans, Stemple said she supports restrictions on abortion later in pregnancy, but she believes hardline anti-abortion activists have taken the restrictions too far.

“Life is complicated,” she said. “It happened. … It wasn’t dry.”

One in three American women has already lost access to an abortion. Stricter laws are coming.

The tough ban in West Virginia passed despite signs from other states that many voters did not support restricting abortion without exception. Last week, South Carolina’s anti-abortion lawmakers failed to pass a ban on conception, with no exceptions for rape and incest. Kansas voters rejected a ballot measure that would open the door to stricter abortion laws in August, while candidates opposing the abortion ban outperformed their polling numbers in this summer’s primary.

Even the West Virginia bill initially stalled in July amid a split among lawmakers over criminal penalties for doctors and a heated debate about what exceptions should be included. Ultimately, lawmakers settled on exceptions for rape and incest victims, as long as they report the assault and seek an abortion before 8 weeks of pregnancy for adults and 14 weeks for children.

While a handful of Republican lawmakers were hesitant to include exceptions and no criminal penalties for doctors in the final version of the ban, national anti-abortion activists called it a “strong anti-abortion bill.”

“West Virginians have been working to protect unborn children and mothers from the fear of abortion, and now, in Dobbs Caitlin Connors, Southern Regional Director for SBA Pro-Life America, said in a statement. Connors added that the final version of the bill ensures “mothers can get the care they need in a heartbreaking situation such as an ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage or medical emergency — just like every other state with life-saving measures.”

Some abortion supporters worry that West Virginia’s law will serve as a template for lawmakers in other states. “What we’re seeing in West Virginia may predict what we’re seeing in other state legislatures later this year and beyond, where the bans passed by legislatures include narrow exceptions that make access to health care nearly impossible,” said Elizabeth Nash, the state’s chief policy assistant for state affairs. The Guttmacher Institute said in an email.

Nash said the exceptions to the West Virginia ban are so limited that many victims of sexual assault will struggle to meet abortion eligibility requirements.

“Patients will not have access to care, including many who qualify for exceptions, because the exceptions are written in such a way that they are nearly unusable,” she said. “Other states are expected to consider similar exceptions as a way to convince the public that these exceptions provide some level of access when in reality they provide almost no access at all.”

The Republican-controlled legislature passed a near-total abortion ban, except to save the lives of pregnant patients and victims of rape or incest. Gov. Jim Justice has not signed the bill, but is expected to do so soon. Once signed, the ban will take effect immediately, and the criminal penalties of the law will take effect 90 days later.

Democrats and reproductive rights advocates say the ban is too broad, prohibiting abortion in nearly all circumstances, and making it difficult for even victims of sexual assault to get one.

Even those eligible for exceptions under the new ban face time constraints and other hurdles. Adult sexual assault victims must report and seek an abortion by the eighth week of pregnancy. Victims under the age of 18 can have an abortion before 14 weeks of pregnancy if they seek medical care or report the assault to the police.

Abortions can only be performed by doctors licensed in the hospital. These doctors could lose their medical licenses but would not face criminal penalties for performing illegal abortions. Anyone who provides abortion services faces felony charges and up to five years in prison. Patients who choose to have an illegal abortion do not face any criminal penalties.

“It’s hard to overstate what a bad day for West Virginia,” Eli Pomwell, the ACLU’s West Virginia advocacy director, said in a statement. “The choice of the legislature takes away a person’s basic human right to choose whether, when and how to become a parent.”

It is unclear whether there is a way to challenge the ban in court.ACLU of West Virginia has challenged abortion ban before U.S. Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade ruling because it conflicts with other laws recently passed by the state legislature. A state judge temporarily blocked the ban in July. But West Virginia voters narrowly passed a state constitutional amendment in 2018 that declared that “nothing in this Constitution guarantees or protects the right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion.”

“Very few cases go very far,” said University of Richmond law professor Carl Tobias. “I don’t think we know” how the legal challenge will play out.

If West Virginia’s injunction is challenged in federal court, Tobias said district judges for the Southern District of West Virginia and the 4th Circuit may be more receptive to plaintiffs’ arguments than federal judges, who may consider the case from Texas Challenges from states like Sri Lanka or Tennessee, which have strict, near-total abortion bans in place.

Idaho has filed a federal challenge to a restrictive abortion ban, and a judge in the state blocked parts of the state’s law that was supposed to prevent doctors from terminating pregnancies with significant health risks if those risks were not jeopardized life. In Idaho, other strict restrictions on abortion remain in place, barring abortions except in cases of rape, incest, or where a woman’s life is threatened.

If challenged in court, the fate of West Virginia law remains uncertain.

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