Healthcare, Latest News, West Virginia Legislature

Legislature resumes July special session, passes new version of bill to update abortion law

MORGANTOWN – The Legislature on Tuesday resumed the special session abruptly suspended on July 29 and passed a new version of the bill to update state abortion law.

Along the way, Senate President Craig Blair had to threaten to empty the audience galleries, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw did empty the galleries in that chamber, and the House adopted a companion resolution that the lead sponsor said is aimed at providing help for mothers in the wake of the bill’s passage.

The bill is HB 302. House-Senate negotiations on it collapsed in July over differences regarding criminal penalties for providers and exceptions for rape and incest victims. The House was expected to reconvene briefly on Tuesday to appoint conferees for negotiations, but a surprise twist occurred when Blair and Hanshaw announced both bodies would meet.

The Senate took up the bill first, with Majority Leader Tom Takubo, R-Kanawha, bringing forth a new version he said was a House-Senate compromise. The Senate voted to reconsider its prior passage of the bill and Takubo then described the replacement.

It limits the performance of abortions to licensed medical doctors and osteopaths with hospital admitting privileges, and only at a state-licensed facility – a hospital, Takubo said.

Abortions may only be performed in the case of a non-viable fetus, an ectopic pregnancy or in the case of a medical emergency to save the mother’s life or avert “serious risk of substantial and irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function, not including psychological or emotional conditions.”

It allows for rape and incest exceptions for adults up to eight weeks, if the crime is reported to law enforcement and law enforcement provides the report to the doctor who will perform the abortion. For minors, the exception extends to 14 weeks, provided the either law enforcement has been informed or the patient has obtained medical treatment for the assault.

It prohibits prescribing chemical or pharmaceutical abortion abortifacients via telemedicine.

A medical doctor or osteopath who performs an illegal abortion is subject to licensing board review and license revocation. A person other than a licensed medical doctor or osteopath, or a physician who is no longer licensed, and who knowingly and willingly performs an illegal abortion will be guilty of a felony.

There are no penalties for mothers. Nurses who assist are not mentioned at all and not subject to penalties, Takubo said.

When Takubo concluded, someone in the gallery shouted an obscenity, leading Blair – who emptied the galleries in July – to read a statement he’d prepared explaining the Legislature’s duties and the rules of decorum for legislators and the public. He threatened to empty the galleries if another outburst occurred.

Senators adopted the new version and debate on the bill began. Sen. Ron Stollings, D-Boone, said obstetricians and gynecologists across the state are concerned about the possibility of misinterpreting a medical emergency, about the possibility of driving out practicing providers and of keeping new recruits from coming.

He cited the example of a couple who are both ob/gyn’s and plan to leave the state. “We’re now sending the wrong message to them,” he said.

Judiciary chair Charles Turmp, R-Morgan, said when doctors read the bill, the parameters of what constitutes an emergency will be clear to them. And there must be intent to perform an illegal abortion for the penalties to have application.

Finance chair Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, opposed the bill because it allows the exceptions and he wants a total ban. With the bill as is, “It’s our duty now as legislators to decide at what age should you execute a child for the crime of their father. … When do you execute an innocent? If life is sacred, when does it become sacred?”

Sen. Richard Lindsay, D-Kanawha, was among those who said the exceptions are too narrow and pose barriers to rape victims: 65% of rapes go unreported nationally, and here 65% of rapes are against children, usually around age 15, and 75% of those happen in the child’s home.

Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, voted for the bill but said the issue should have been put before the voters. “We should trust our people to vote on this issue.”

The vote was 22-7, with two Democrats voting yes and Tarr voting no. Local senators voted with their party, but Sens. Mike Caputo, D-Marion, and Mike Maroney, R-Marshall, were absent.

The Senate then adjourned sine die (meaning they ended their role in the session) and the bill passed to the House. The Senates adjournment limited delegates’ ability to further amend the bill – any changes would have effectively killed it.

Delegate John Doyle, D-Jefferson, tried to do just that by proposing an amendment that would have required a referendum in each county, and voter approval for the bill to take effect in that county.

Delegate Barbara Evans Fleischauer supported it. While voters in 2018 approved a state constitutional amendment saying the Constitution does not support or protect a right to abortion, views have changed since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Roe v Wade, she said. “I can really feel a sea change when I’m going door to door.”

Doyle’s amendment failed 18-74.

Debate in the House paralleled that in the Senate.

Delegate Margitta Mazzocchi, R-Logan, was attempting to speak for the bill but was repeatedly interrupted by a heckler screaming from the gallery. Hanshaw warned the heckler, who ignored the warning and then was escorted out.

Others continued screaming “Our lives matter,” and after a couple more failed warnings, Hanshaw paused the floor session and cleared the galleries.

Delegate Patrick McGeehan, R-Hancock, said abortion is the opposite of a human right and “a deep wound in our society.” The right to human life is the foundation of Western society. “It is always wrong to deliberately kill human life,” and that truth stands above all of us.

Delegate Mike Pushkin, D-Kanawha, disagreed, saying the bill is about control.

It passed 78-17. All local delegates voted with their party.

Following that, the House adopted the GOP sponsored HR 302, “Providing for a statement of the sentiments of the House of Delegates upon the passage of HB 302.”

It’s long, but says among other things abortion devalues mothers and children, and the state must work to serve mothers and their interests. “As West Virginians are a moral and decent people, we must now accept the legislative challenge that this decency demands.”

The resolution drew strong opinions on whether its language demeaned or supported women. McGeehan, lead sponsor, said its intent is to declare the Legislature will develop measures to support struggling women and their families.

It was adopted 66-17 and the House also adjourned sine die.

Tweet David Beard @dbeardtdp Email