CHARLESTON, W.Va. – West Virginia’s Legislature passed a sweeping abortion ban with few exceptions Tuesday, approving a bill that several members of the Republican supermajority said they hope will make it impossible for the state’s only abortion clinic to continue to offer the procedure.
“It is going to shut down that abortion clinic, of that I feel certain,” Republican Sen. Robert Karnes said on the Senate floor, amid shouts from protesters standing outside the chamber doors. “I believe it’s going to save a lot of babies.”
Under the legislation, rape and incest victims would be able to obtain abortions at up to eight weeks of pregnancy, but only if they report to law enforcement first. Such victims who are minors would have until 14 weeks to terminate a pregnancy and must report to either law enforcement or a physician.
Rape and incest victims would have to report the assault within 48 hours of getting an abortion, and a patient must present a copy of a police report or notarized letter to a physician before the procedure can be performed.
Abortions also would be allowed in cases of medical emergencies.
West Virginia joins the ranks of states moving to ban abortion in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year to end the constitutional right to privacy that protected abortion rights nationwide. That left it to states to decide whether abortion should remain legal, which in turn has ignited intense state-level debates, especially in states controlled by Republicans, about when to impose the ban, whether to carve out exceptions in cases involving rape, incest or the health of the woman giving birth, and how those exceptions should be implemented.
The West Virginia bill now heads to the desk of Republican Gov. Jim Justice, who has signed several anti-abortion bills into law since taking office in 2017. Lawmakers resumed debate on the bill Tuesday after failing to come to an agreement in late July, giving up the chance for the state to become the first to approve new legislation restricting access to abortions since the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in June removing its protected status as a constitutional right.
Both the Senate and the House of Delegates speedily approved the bill, after several hours of debate. Dozens of protesters wearing pink shirts reading “bans off our bodies” and holding signs reading “abortion is healthcare" staged a rally in the Capitol rotunda while lawmakers were in session.
Some of the group sat in the gallery as legislators discussed the bills, with some shouting down to legislators in frustration as they spoke in support of the bill. Legislative leadership asked that the onlookers remain silent as lawmakers conducted business. At one point, at least one protester was escorted out of the building by police.
Lawmakers inserted several provisions they said were specifically targeted at the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, which was the state’s first abortion clinic when it opened in 1976 following the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Roe v. Wade case. It has existed as the state’s sole abortion clinic for years, making it the ever-increasing target of anti-abortion lawmakers and protesters.
The bill states that surgical abortions can only be performed at a state-licensed hospital by a physician with hospital privileges. Anybody else who performs an abortion, including nurse practitioners and other medical professionals, could face three to 10 years in prison. A physician who performs an illegal abortion could lose their medical license.
Pregnant people who obtain illegal abortions will not face any form of prosecution under the bill, however.
Kaylen Barker, spokesperson for the Women's Health Center of West Virginia, said the clinic will not be shutting down, even if the staff is no longer able to provide abortions. Like many clinics that perform abortions, the facility did not offer the procedure daily.
Most days are dedicated to services like gender-affirming hormone therapy, HIV prevention and treatment and routine gynecological care — cervical exams, cancer screenings — mostly for low-income patients on Medicaid with nowhere else to go.
Democratic Sen. Owens Brown, West Virginia’s only Black senator, spoke against the bill before it passed the Senate. He said when he looks around at his fellow lawmakers, he sees a body that is overwhelmingly comprised of white, middle-aged to elderly men who are middle-class or above.
Brown compared groups of men passing legislation that overwhelmingly impacts women to laws that were passed by white lawmakers when slavery was legal in the U.S. He said “all laws are not good laws made by men.”
“That’s somewhat irrational in many ways to be able to apply a law that will never apply to you,” he said to his fellow lawmakers. "It’s easy for you to sit there and do that because you will never have to face the consequences of your actions.”