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West Virginia House committee considers new restrictions on abortion

Republican members reject exceptions for rape, incest

Delegate Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall, speaks in favor of an amendment to add exemptions for rape and incest to a bill that would lower the ban on abortions from 20 weeks to 15 weeks. (Photo courtesy of WV Legislative Photography)

CHARLESTON — Lawmakers may have focused on economic development Wednesday, but they quickly turned to social issues Thursday as some members of the West Virginia House of Delegates considered bills dealing with abortion.

The House Health and Human Resources Committee discussed two bills Thursday afternoon. House Bill 4004 would ban abortion procedures after 15 weeks. House Bill 4005 would ban the selling or collection of fetal body parts under certain conditions.

HB 4004 would prohibit licensed medical professionals from performing abortions if the gestation period of the fetus is determined to be greater than 15 weeks. The bill includes exemptions for medical emergencies or in the instance of severe fetal abnormalities.

The committee recommended the bill for passage in a voice vote. The House Judiciary Committee will review the bill next. House Health Committee Vice Chairman Dean Jeffries, R-Kanawha, said the vote was an easy decision.

“I’m very comfortable making this vote today,” Jeffries said. “I am very honored to deliver a promise to my constituents. As a soon-to-be grandfather of twin boys, I can tell you at 15 weeks I witnessed a beating heart, functioning vital organs, an ability to make gestures and even suck a thumb. I saw formed lips, eyelids, and a nose. At that point, I knew this legislation is just and it is right.”

The bill was vocally opposed by Democratic members of the committee, who attempted — in vain — to amend the bill. One of those failed amendments included an exemption for rape and incest.

“These ladies we’re talking about, these children perhaps, with rape and incest didn’t have a choice,” said Delegate Lisa Zukoff, D-Marshall. “This wasn’t a consensual relationship. This was oftentimes done through trauma and force and violence. And for us to not have the compassion to consider letting those ladies, that child, make the decision is very heartless of all of us.”

The committee heard from Morgantown resident Ash Orr who had an abortion after 15 weeks at the age of 22. Orr, who identifies as he/they, found out that he was pregnant at 11 weeks. He was unable to receive an abortion in the state due to his health issues, forcing him to have the procedure done in another state.

“I was very surprised to find out I was pregnant,” Orr said. “Thankfully I was able to receive an abortion at Planned Parenthood, but at that point in time I was at week 16. I can truly say if I had not had that abortion, I would not be here. Even though I was at high risk, the fetus still could have potentially survived, so I was not given the opportunity to have an abortion within the State of West Virginia.”

West Virginia Code already bans abortion procedures after the 20th week of gestation, or “pain capable gestation age.” The code dealing with abortions was last updated in 2015 with the passage of House Bill 2568, the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Act.

A coalition of groups released a statement Thursday criticizing the committee’s vote on HB 4004, including the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, the state chapter of the ACLU, WV FREE, and Planned Parenthood.

“State lawmakers are trying to interfere with personal medical decisions, block access to essential health care, and force people to give birth against their will,” said Alisa Clements, director of public affairs for Planned Parenthood South Atlantic. “Politicians have no place interfering in anyone’s pregnancy decisions. State lawmakers should instead prioritize policies that help people and communities thrive — not restrict people’s personal freedoms and take away their health care.”

The Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, the state’s only abortion clinic based in Charleston, already doesn’t perform abortions after 16 weeks.

“These bills are about banning abortion and making abortion as hard as possible for West Virginians to access, plain and simple,” said Katie Quinonez, executive director of Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, in a statement. “When someone has made the decision to have an abortion, they should be able to get one as soon as they decide without facing restrictions that force them to delay care, get on a plane to another state, or carry a pregnancy against their will.”

According to available information from the Kaiser Family Foundation and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, there were 1,183 legal abortion procedures in West Virginia in 2019, including 123 abortions for women age 19 or younger according to data from the CDC.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in December in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization regarding a Mississippi law banning abortions after 15 weeks. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey joined a 24-state coalition filing a brief in support of the 15-week ban.

The 1973 U.S. Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade opened the door for legal abortions. Supporters of abortion rights are concerned that court cases, such as the Mississippi case and others, could see the Supreme Court roll back the protections for legal abortions in Roe v. Wade. Opponents of abortion believe that the Supreme Court overstepped its authority in legalizing abortion.

West Virginia voters approved an addition to the state Constitution in 2018, stating that “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion.” West Virginia is one of 20 states with “trigger bans” that would go into effect should the Supreme Court reverse itself on Roe v. Wade.

The House Health Committee will hold a public hearing on HB 4004 Monday, Jan. 17, at 3 p.m.

HB 4005 would make it a crime to collect, harvest, sell, donate, receive, or transfer fetal body parts from induced abortions. The committee also recommended it for passage and sent it to the House Judiciary Committee.

A federal law already bars a similar practice across state lines, but HB 4005 would apply within the state. The bill does not apply to fetal body parts used for stem cell research or umbilical cord blood. Someone charged with violating the proposed bill could be convicted of a misdemeanor, fined as much as $1,000 and face up to one year in jail.

Steven Allen Adams can be reached at sadams@newsandsentinel.com.

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