Special session looms on West Virginia abortion law, but shape unclear
West Virginia may be heading for a special legislative session to refine an abortion law dating back to the late 1800s, but it’s not yet clear what a revision might look like.
Governor Jim Justice opened the door to a special session on Friday after a majority of Americans. Supreme Court justices overturned the Roe v. Wade findings that established a federally guaranteed right to abortion for the past 50 years.
This decision did not ban abortion nationwide, but rather left the matter to the states. The West Virginia law was inactive during the years Roe was in effect, but has not been repealed. West Virginia law makes performing an abortion a felony punishable by three to 10 years in prison.
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Governor Justice, a Republican, welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision, but acknowledged that state legislative action may still be needed.
“I will not hesitate to call a special session after consulting with the Legislative Assembly and my legal team if any clarifications in our laws need to be made,” Justice said.
Books law in West Virginia dates back to the early days of the state. The law says:
Whoever administers or causes a woman to take any drug or other thing, or uses any means, with intent to destroy her unborn child, or to cause an abortion or miscarriage, and will thereby destroy such child, or produce such abortion or miscarriage, shall be guilty of a felony and, on conviction, shall be confined in the penitentiary not less than three years nor more than ten years; and if that woman dies because of such an abortion performed on her, that person will be guilty of murder. No one, because of an act mentioned in this article, will be punishable if this act is done in good faith, with the intention of saving the life of this woman or this child.
The law makes no exception for rape or incest. There are no exceptions for the first few weeks of a pregnancy. And it’s not entirely clear whether the crime would apply strictly to medical professionals who perform abortions or more broadly to a woman seeking an abortion.
In a joint statement released on Friday, Senate Speaker Craig Blair and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, both Republicans, welcomed the Supreme Court’s decision, saying “we stand ready to take prompt action to ensure that we continue to save and protect as many innocent lives as possible.” possible in West Virginia.
The first step, legislative leaders acknowledged, is to assess West Virginia’s code and its interaction with the Supreme Court’s decision. They said state attorneys were already preparing.
“Abortion is addressed in numerous statutes in the West Virginia Code, and our attorneys will now need to review those statutes to determine how they apply in light of this ruling. We will work with the executive branch to address any needs related to our state’s abortion laws that may arise from today’s opinion,” Blair and Hanshaw said.
West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, a Republican, said his office would review the ruling and produce its own legal analysis of the effect on state law.
“I will be issuing a legal opinion articulating some of the challenges and ways the Legislature and the Governor can address them because I want to save as many lives as humanly possible,” he said. “We know that because this law hasn’t been on the books for a long time, a lot of people are going to challenge it.
“It’s my goal to respond to all attacks and make sure there’s law on the books that we’re going to defend, so we’re going to be providing that advice to the governor and the legislature in the days ahead. The goal will be to save as many lives as legally and humanely possible.”
Delegate Kayla Young, D-Kanawha, expressed disappointment with the Supreme Court’s decision. Young said West Virginia law should be overhauled to remove his felony penalty.
“I would like to see the penal code removed, that Roe is now a felony in West Virginia as of 10 a.m. this morning,” Young said on MetroNews’ “Talkline.” “The governor has already said he’s going to call a special session, and that’s what I expect will happen.”
But Young suggested the legislative outcome could be more specific restrictions on abortion. “I expect the code to get much tougher sentences,” she said.
“I know a majority of West Virginians want exceptions for rape, incest, mother’s life and right now we don’t have that,” she said.
West Virginia’s latest abortion provider, just hours after the Supreme Court ruling, announced it would have to stop. Leaders at the West Virginia Women’s Health Center have expressed concern that prosecutors may begin trying to immediately enforce an abortion ban based on the state’s 1882 law.
The clinic opened in 1976 as West Virginia’s first abortion provider.
“However, due to the failure of state lawmakers to repeal an 1882 abortion ban from our state’s criminal code, our clinic cannot provide safe abortion care until further notice. “said Katie Quinonez, executive director of the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia.
She said clinic representatives had to call 60 to 70 people who were scheduled for upcoming abortions to tell them it would no longer be possible.
“Some patients collapsed and couldn’t speak through their sobs,” Quinonez said at a Friday news conference. “Some patients were stunned and didn’t know what to say. Some patients didn’t know what was going on.
Loree Stark, legal director for the ACLU West Virginia, said attorneys should analyze the 200-page Supreme Court decision.
“Because West Virginia lawmakers did not expressly repeal the current West Virginia law that criminalizes abortion, an archaic law – it’s odious – what we’re looking at is exploring ways to aggressively all the different avenues that can be taken, to review the decision in its entirety, analyzing its connection to federal law and state law here,” Stark said.
Alisa Clements of Planned Parenthood South Atlantic acknowledged a difficult political environment in West Virginia for those who would like to keep abortion as a choice.
She said “the reality we have to face in the West Virginia legislature is that there is an anti-abortion supermajority in both houses of the legislature, and our governor is anti-abortion.”
If a special session is called, Clements said, “it’s imperative that they repeal this pre-Roe law in our code that criminalizes abortion.”
Updating this old law is not politically unrealistic, suggested Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of the West Virginia Free.
“We know there are lawmakers who believe the criminal law goes way too far, both Republicans and Democrats, and we call on them to find the courage, to find their compassion, and to act immediately in a special session by repealing the code,” she said.