Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Most abortions stop in West Virginia after lawmakers pass near-total ban


CHARLESTON, W. Va. — On Tuesday morning, West Virginians could obtain elective abortions in the first 20 weeks of pregnancy.

By 5 p.m., the state legislature had voted to ban nearly all abortions from the moment a fertilized egg implants in the uterus. The governor has not yet signed the bill into law, but has indicated he will do so.

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

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

“West Virginians will now have to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their homes and incur massive costs to access essential, lifesaving care,” Katie Quiñonez, executive director of the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, said in a statement.

The Women’s Health Center had an empty parking lot Wednesday. A printed sign on the door said the health center was “closed for staff rest” and would open the next day. Across the street, a crisis pregnancy center run by antiabortion advocates remained open to patients.

Around lunchtime, Elizabeth Gill, 56, who has often protested as a member of West Virginians for Life, pulled into the clinic’s lot. But there were no women seeking abortions for her to speak to.

Gill, who was adopted, said she welcomes the new ban, though she opposes the exceptions for victims of rape or incest. The ban allows abortions for adult victims of rape or incest until eight weeks of pregnancy, and until 14 weeks of pregnancy for child victims. She also said she hopes the Women’s Health Center closes for good.

“The baby has a God-given right to live the life and live out the purpose that God has for them,” she said.

Austin Walters, who has lived next door to the clinic for about six years and endured countless noisy antiabortion protests, said he opposes 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 possibly hurt the economy.

“The government, or the lawmakers, should not control women’s bodies,” he said. “This is one issue where the government needs to stay out.”

Betty Jo Stemple, another resident who lives near the abortion clinic, said she feels strongly that abortion should be a woman’s choice in the early stages of pregnancy and in instances of rape or incest. She said she had an abortion decades ago, after she was raped in her late 20s.

“When I missed that second period, I knew I had to make a choice,” Stemple, now 61, said.

She didn’t want to have a child “with those evil genes,” she said. “I didn’t want that growing in inside me.”

Like many Americans, Stemple said she supports restrictions on abortion later in pregnancy, but she believes hard-line antiabortion activists are taking limitations too far.

“Life is complicated,” she said. “Situations happen. … It’s not cut-and-dried.”

1 in 3 American women have already lost abortion access. More restrictive laws are coming.

The strict ban in West Virginia passed despite signs in other states that many voters do not support restrictive limits on abortion without exceptions. Antiabortion lawmakers in South Carolina failed to pass a ban from conception without exceptions for rape and incest last week. Kansas voters rejected a ballot measure that would have opened the door to more restrictive abortion laws in August, and candidates who oppose abortion bans have been outperforming their polling numbers during primaries this summer.

Even the West Virginia bill initially stalled in July over disagreements between lawmakers over criminal penalties for doctors and a heated debate over what exceptions to include. Ultimately, lawmakers settled on exceptions for victims of rape and incest as long as they report the assault and seek an abortion before eight weeks of pregnancy for adults and 14 weeks for children.

Although a handful of Republican lawmakers balked at the exceptions and lack of criminal penalties for doctors in the final version of the ban, national antiabortion activists called it a “strong pro-life bill.”

“West Virginians have been committed to protecting unborn children and mothers from the horrors of abortion and now, in the Dobbs era, they have passed legislation to do just that,” 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 the heartbreaking situation of an ectopic pregnancy, miscarriage or medical emergency – just like every other state with pro-life protections in place.”

Some abortion supporters worry West Virginia’s law will serve as a template for other state lawmakers. “What we saw in West Virginia may forecast what we see in other state legislatures later this year and beyond with legislatures adopting bans that include narrow exceptions that make it nearly impossible to access care,” Elizabeth Nash, principal policy associate for state issues for the Guttmacher Institute said in an email.

Nash said that the exceptions in the West Virginia ban are so narrow that many sexual assault victims will struggle to meet the requirements to qualify for an abortion.

“Patients will not be able to access care, including many of those who qualify for an exception, because the exceptions are written in a way as to make them nearly impossible to use,” she said. “It is expected other states will also consider similar exceptions as a way to convince the public that the exceptions provide some measure of access, but in practice the exceptions provide almost no access at all.”

The Republican-controlled legislature passed a near-total abortion ban with exceptions only to save the life of the pregnant patient and for victims of rape or incest. Gov. Jim Justice has not yet signed the bill, but is expected to do so soon. Once it is signed, the ban will take effect immediately and the law’s criminal penalties will kick in 90 days later.

Democrats and reproductive rights advocates say the ban goes so far that it outlaws abortion in almost every circumstance, and makes it difficult to access even for victims of sexual assault.

Even people eligible for an exception under the new ban face time limits and other hurdles. Adult sexual assault victims must report the crime and seek an abortion before the eighth week of pregnancy. Victims under the age of 18 can get an abortion before the 14th week of pregnancy if they seek medical care for the assault or report it to police.

Abortions may only be performed by doctors with admitting privileges at a hospital. Those physicians may lose their medical license but do not face criminal penalties for performing an illegal abortion. Anyone else who provides an abortion 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 terrible day this is for the state of West Virginia,” ACLU of West Virginia Advocacy Director Eli Baumwell said in a statement. “The Legislature chose to strip away a basic human right to choose if, when, and how a person becomes a parent.”

It is unclear whether a path exists to challenge the ban in court. The ACLU of West Virginia had already challenged an abortion ban, before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its Roe v. Wade ruling, because it conflicted with other laws that the state legislature had passed more recently. A state judge temporarily blocked that ban in July. But West Virginia voters narrowly passed an amendment to the state constitution in 2018 that declared “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.”

“There are so few cases that have gone very far,” Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said. “I don’t think we know” how a legal challenge will turn out.

If the West Virginia ban is challenged in federal court, Tobias said district judges in the Southern District of West Virginia and the 4th Circuit may be more receptive to plaintiff’s arguments than the federal judges who might consider challenges from states like Texas or Tennessee, where strict, near-total abortion bans are in place.

A federal challenge to a restrictive abortion ban has been filed in Idaho, where a judge blocked parts of the state law that would have prevented doctors from terminating pregnancies that pose significant health risks, if those risks were not life-threatening. Other strict limitations on abortion are still in place in Idaho, where abortion is banned except in cases of rape, incest or when a woman’s life is at risk.

And the fate of West Virginia’s law, if challenged in the courts, remains uncertain.

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