Editorials, Opinion

Abortion access is popular. Legislators want to ban it entirely

There is a vocal group of extreme anti-abortion West Virginians, but despite their outsized presence in the Capitol’s halls, they are a statistical minority. Several polls show West Virginians support at least some access to abortion: A 2019 poll showed two-thirds of respondents believed full access to reproductive health care was important (even 49% of Republicans agreed), and a 2022 poll showed slightly over two-thirds of respondents strongly believed that there should at least be exceptions for rape and incest, and a slight majority said it wasn’t the place of the government to ban abortions.

And yet, despite support for allowing abortion in certain circumstances, West Virginia has one of the strictest abortion bans in the country — both in terms of gestational age and limits on rape/incest exceptions.

Now, the Legislature has introduced a plethora of bills to further restrict abortion access. The following bills are all designed to limit or prohibit medication abortion: SB 278, HB 4587, HB 4588 and HB 5524. And SB 558 requires publicly funded medical schools to teach medication abortion reversal. HB 5665 would prohibit billboards that inform people of the ability to access abortion care in neighboring states.

There’s also SB 284, the “Fetal Heartbeat Act,” which effectively bans abortion after detectible “cardiac activity” — around 6 weeks, which may be before a woman knows she’s pregnant.

Then there are insidious bills like HB 4328, to require an ultrasound before an abortion can be performed, and SB 352, to modify the Unborn Child Protection Act for “informed consent.”

Mandating an ultrasound just before an abortion is a common tactic employed as a last-ditch effort to convince a woman not to have an abortion. The logic is that if she sees her baby on the ultrasound, she won’t be able to go through with the procedure. HB 4328 takes away the choice to forgo an ultrasound, though it doesn’t go as far as forcing a woman to see the ultrasound images. However, it’s hard not to see the images when the machine is sitting next to you.

SB 352 defines “informed consent” and is quickly working its way toward becoming law. We agree that a woman should know all her options and all possible side-effects of her treatment — whether that means abortion or to continue pregnancy. However, laws like this one are generally used to force physicians to give women anti-abortion propaganda instead of accurate medical information. Doctors may be instructed to emphasize the risks related to abortion procedures or medication — but not how rare those risks are — while downplaying the risks of continuing pregnancy. For example, the “informed consent” checklist in Missouri requires the woman be informed of the fetus’ gestational age and physiological characteristics and to receive a booklet that describes fetal pain and pushes abortion alternatives. The checklist also emphasizes the psychological harm of having an abortion and risk to future pregnancies — even though carrying an unviable or unwanted pregnancy poses an even greater risk to mental health and future fertility.

Even worse is SB 246, which would eliminate the already strict exceptions for rape and incest victims. Sen.  Jay Taylor, of Taylor County, sponsors this bill. While the level of support for abortion access varies, the vast majority of West Virginians at least agree that there should be exceptions for the victims of these horrendous crimes. Yet, legislators are considering taking even those protections away.

Some lawmakers may point to the state constitutional amendment passed in 2018 to codify that abortion is not protected in this state. We’d like to point out that the amendment was voted on in a non-presidential election year and passed with only the slimmest majority. It was also passed when Roe was still the law of the land and took precedence. If the same amendment was offered today, the results may be different.