By Ammie Ruddle
Opponents of the new abortion law recently passed by the West Virginia Legislature may view it as a step back, while proponents of the bill will say it is a step in the right direction.
The West Virginia legislation met from July 25 to 29 for a special session called by Gov. Jim Justice. The session was focused mainly on a proposed income tax cut, but lawmakers but also discussed updating the state’s 150-year-old abortion law following the overturning of Roe vs. Wade in June by members of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lawmakers began discussing updating the abortion law on the second day of the special session. They debated several issues regarding House Bill 302, including cases involving rape, incest, and medically necessary abortions. The debate lasted for more than three hours before House of Delegates leaders called for a voice vote.
The Democratic members of the House of Delegates, including Cody Thompson (D-Randolph), pushed to permit elective abortions in the case of rape or incest.
Several amendments were voted down by the delegates, including one offered by Democrats by a vote of 67-21 to establish exceptions for rape or incest. John Paul Hott (R-54) and Bryan Ward (R-55) voted with the majority. Hott and Ward represent portions of Pendleton County. Cody Thompson (D-43) voted with the minority. Thompson will be running for re-election in November in a redesigned district that will include part of Pendleton County.
Delegates adopted a different, more narrow-focused amendment offered by John Hardy (R-63) to allow abortions in cases of rape or incest once a report is made to law enforcement officials. In addition, the amendment required a medical professional to assess the individual to verify that fewer than 14 weeks of gestation have gone by. The amendment was barely approved by a vote of 46-43. Local representatives, Hott and Thompson, voted with the majority while Ward voted with the minority.
HB 302 was ultimately approved by the delegates by a vote of 69-2, with Hott and Ward voting with the majority and Thompson voting with the minority. The final version of the bill that was sent to the Senate for approval would ban all abortions beginning at fertilization, except for medical emergencies, a non-medically viable fetus and in the instance of a pregnancy when a fetus develops outside the uterus.
In addition, the bill makes clear that miscarriages, stillbirths, the use of existing established cell lines derived from aborted human embryos or fetuses, medical treatments that result in the accidental death or injury to a fetus, in vitro fertilization or human fetal tissue research are not considered abortions.
The bill does not consider psychological or emotional conditions to be a medical emergency.
HB 302 does not prevent the prescription, sale, or transfer of contraceptives. Nor does it prevent the use of contraceptives.
Sen. Robert Karnes (R-Randolph) voted against the bill. “It was amended in such a way it became a pro-abortion bill and I am very much pro-life,” Karnes said. “Many voted for it (HB 302) who are pro-life in hope that the conference committee would fix the bill. If that happens and it comes back in pro-life form, I’ll support it.”
Following the decision, Lisa Zukoff (D-Marshall) issued an apology to females in the state. “We are very sorry.”
“It’s time we educate our children because they’re going to have no recourse,” she said. “They are not going be able to make the decision; it’s been made for them. Even if they are forcibly raped, they’re going to have to have that child.”
Delegate Brandon Steele (R-29) responded to Zukoff’s statement. “I am pro-life because I believe every life has value,” he said. “I am not pro-life for any other reason. I believe that every life is a gift from God above, regardless of how it came into being or came into existence.”
Democratic House members accused Republican lawmakers of making a deal with Justice to add abortion to the special session in exchange for supporting his personal income tax cut plan.
“Did they change the narrative because they’re doing nothing with a billion-dollar surplus to give back to West Virginians,” Minority Leader Doug Skaff (D-35) said. “You have a majority of both houses and a governor of the same party with a billion-dollar surplus and they can’t get their act together to give relief to West Virginians.”
Justice responded to the allegation and said cutting the personal income tax was important, but said the abortion issue was as well.
“There is no question that the tax cut is important, but really and truly it does not hold a teacup to what we’re going to do in this state for the elimination of abortion and what our Supreme Court of the United States did,” Justice said.