W.Va. House passes sweeping ban criminalizing abortion

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia’s Republican-dominated House of Delegates passed a sweeping abortion ban Wednesday that makes providing the procedure a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

The measure, which now heads to the Senate for consideration, includes exceptions for victims of rape and incest, as well as for medical emergencies.

During hours of debate leading up to the 69 to 23 vote, the sound of screams and chants from protesters standing outside the chamber rang through the room. “Face us!” the crowd yelled.

“What’s ringing in my ears is not the noise of the people here,” said one of the bill’s supporters, Republican Del. Brandon Steele of Raleigh County. “It’s the cries of the unborn, tens of thousands of unborn children that are dead today. ... Their blood screams from the ground today that you end this scar on our state, that you remove this curse from this land that was put upon us by a court so long ago.”

Abortion had been banned after 20 weeks of pregnancy in West Virginia until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion last month. After that ruling, the state’s Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said abortion was banned in the state because of an 1800s-era law that had been unenforceable while abortion was federally protected.

But last week a Charleston judge barred the state from enforcing the ban, ruling it had been superseded by a slew of conflicting modern laws like the 20-week ban.

In response, Republican Gov. Jim Justice on Monday called lawmakers to “clarify and modernize” the state abortion laws in a special session.

During their lengthy floor debate Wednesday, lawmakers narrowly voted 46 to 43 to add an exemption for victims of rape and incest until 14 weeks of pregnancy. Eleven members did not vote. The exemption also requires victims to report their assault to law enforcement. The bill provides other exceptions for an a “nonmedically viable fetus,” a medical emergency or an ectopic pregnancy — when an embryo grows outside the uterus and can’t be saved.

Republican Del. John Kelly of Wood County said he is against abortion, but said he had to listen to his conscience when it came to supporting the exemption for rape and incest. Kelly said he would want his granddaughter to be able to access abortion if she were assaulted.

“I’m the guy that’s going to have to lay my head down on a pillow tonight after I make that vote. I’m either going to go to sleep, or I’m gonna have to worry, ‘Did I make the right decision?’” he said. “In this case, my little granddaughter is one that I’m going to make a decision for. I am not going to put her through the hell that she would have to go through.”

Hundreds of people descended on the state Capitol to speak on the bill in a hearing or watch lawmakers vote. They stood outside the House chamber and Speaker Roger Hanshaw’s office chanting and holding signs reading, “We will not go quietly” and “Stop stealing our health care.”

During the morning public hearing, multiple people were escorted out from the House chambers by security, including staff from the state’s only abortion clinic.

Around 70 of the 90 people spoke against the bill. All speakers were each given 45 seconds before they were cut off and asked to step down from the podium. Some people cried, including a woman who said getting an abortion saved her life and a mother whose teenage daughter was raped last year at a sleepover.

Women’s Health Center of West Virginia Executive Director Katie Quiñonez was cut off and asked to step down as she started to talk about the abortion she got when she was 17, months away from graduating high school.

“I chose life,” she said, raising her voice to speak over the interruption. “I chose my life, because my life is sacred.”

As security approached to escort her away from the podium, Quiñonez walked past them, down the chamber aisle and out the doors. People sitting in the gallery stood up to clap and cheer.