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West Virginia Legislature puts abortion bill on hiatus

State senators spent Friday afternoon and evening debate amendments to a bill clarifying and modernizing West Virginia’s abortion laws. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

CHARLESTON – Just five days after it was added to the special session call, the West Virginia Senate passed an update to the state’s abortion laws Friday evening, but differences between the state Senate and House of Delegates have paused the special session.

The state Senate passed House Bill 302, clarifying West Virginia’s abortion laws, in a 21-10 vote Friday night that saw divisions break out among members of the majority party and resulted in the galleries above the Senate chamber being cleared due to outbursts throughout the debate by opponents of the bill.

Both the Senate and House adjourned well after 10 p.m. Friday subject to the call of the chair. The House refused to concur with changes the Senate made to HB 302 and moved for a five-member conference committee be appointed to hammer out differences between the Senate and House versions.

However, because the Senate adjourned first, a conference committee won’t be able to be appointed and meet until after both chambers agree to resume the special session, which could happen in the next 10 days or more.

HB 302 would ban all abortions beginning at fertilization except for medical emergencies, a non-medically viable fetus, the instance of a pregnancy when a fetus develops outside the uterus, and in the instance of incest or sexual assault under certain circumstances.

Opponents of an abortion bill under consideration by the state Senate protest outside of the Senate chambers Friday afternoon in Charleston. (Photo by Steven Allen Adams)

An amendment offered Friday by state Senators Donna Boley, R-Pleasants; Amy Grady, R-Mason; Rupie Phillips, R-Logan; Rollan Roberts, R-Raleigh; Chandler Swope, R-Mercer; and Jack Woodrum, R-Summers, would change the sexual assault/incest abortion exception from no later than 14 weeks of gestation to eight weeks of gestation for adults while keeping the 14-week exception for minors.

The amendment also allows an exception for sexual assault and incest if the person seeks medical treatment with a licensed medical professional or at a licensed medical facility as long as the abortion is not performed by the same medical professional or medical facility. The bill as passed by the House required the person assaulted to file a report with a qualified law enforcement agency before being allowed to seek an abortion.

A group of Democratic state senators led by Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin, D-Greenbrier, offered an amendment that would also allow a report made by a minor to a mandatory reporter – such as a teacher or counselor who are required to report instances of sexual assault to law enforcement – to be considered a valid report if an abortion is needed. The amendment was adopted in a 17-14 vote with bipartisan support.

The bill also makes clear that no woman can be prosecuted for having an abortion performed. A licensed medical professional who performs an abortion could also lose their medical license or face other discipline.

A successful amendment offered by two doctors – Senate Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha; and Senate Health and Human Resources Committee Chairman Mike Maroney, R-Marshall – removed provisions in HB 302 making it a felony to perform an abortion or attempt to induce an abortion.

“The provision to remove the criminal penalties I feel does zero to the intent of what we’re trying to do with this bill,” Takubo said. “There are potential, tremendous unintended consequences … When you’ve got OBY/GYN’s all across the state in bad situations and they’re pausing and waiting a little bit more, not only are we costing the life of the baby but we’re potentially costing the life of the mother.”

Despite HB 302’s passage in the Senate, several Republican senators expressed their disappointment that the bill did not go far enough to ban all abortions with no exceptions.

“I would push this as far as we could for the person who would go in to manage a pregnancy, to use abortion as contraception, to close every possible loophole that somebody can come in and be a profiteer off that. And if somebody did try to be a profiteer off of it, they should go to prison and they should be there for a long time,” said state Sen. Eric Tarr, R-Putnam. “We chose a lesser way out.”

“I honestly don’t even know what real guards there are in place to make certain that what we are passing is actually going to be what is enforced and that it is enforceable,” said state Sen. Patricia Rucker, R-Jefferson. “I would like to save lives. That is my goal and my intention. And that is my priority. Because of that, I also do not feel that I can with good conscience be able to support this as it has been abandoned.”

Gov. Jim Justice amended his special session proclamation Monday, originally issued last week to consider a 10-percent personal income tax cut bill, asking the Legislature to clarify and modernize the state’s abortion laws after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed two previous high court decisions that gave women the right to abortion access. A circuit court in Kanawha County issued a preliminary injunction against the felony abortion law, which dates back to the mid-1800s.

Speaking earlier Friday in a press conference, Senate Democratic caucus members criticized the quick work on HB 302 and the process that brought it about.

“I called it a slow-motion train wreck, and I really believe that,” Baldwin said. “We were not even called together for this purpose. And this is now the purpose that’s before us that’s occupied 95 percent of our time and our energy. It’s been a zoo; It’s been an absolute zoo.”

“It’s about God, guns, gays, and abortion, and folks, they’re playing you as a voter in West Virginia like a fiddle,” said state Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, a doctor in his hometown of Madison.

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

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