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West Virginia Senate opposes constitutional abortion rights

| Friday, Feb. 9, 2018, 8:00 p.m.
Anti-abortion demonstrators march towards the U.S. Supreme Court during the 44th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., in 2017.
AFP/Getty Images
Anti-abortion demonstrators march towards the U.S. Supreme Court during the 44th annual March for Life in Washington, D.C., in 2017.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — West Virginia's Senate on Friday voted to end abortion rights under the state constitution.

The measure approved by senators 25-9 would require passage by two-thirds of the House and a voter referendum to amend the West Virginia constitution and take effect.

The resolution says: “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.” It would authorize lawmakers to restrict or outlaw the procedure.

“This is really about public funding,” Judiciary Committee Chairman Charles Trump said. It's also about putting that abortion question before the state's voters, the Berkeley Springs Republican said.

However, some advocates and opponents said the subtext is a possible state abortion ban should the historic 1973 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court be reversed by another iteration of that court.

Last year, West Virginia's Medicaid program paid $326,103 for 1,560 abortions for poor women, state data show. That was about 340 more than the previous year. A bill pending in the House Judiciary Committee would prohibit state Medicaid funding for abortions except to save a woman's life.

West Virginia's association of obstetricians and gynecologists opposes the constitutional amendment because it interferes with to ability of women and their doctors to make the best health care decisions for them, said Democratic Sen. Ron Stallings, a doctor from Madison. That includes doctors who don't perform abortions. They are also concerned about the Legislature's ability to criminalize doctors, he said.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1973 upheld women's federal constitutional right to abortion. In 1980, the top court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited using federal funds to pay for them except to save a woman's life. That was later amended by Congress to also allow federal funding to terminate pregnancies from incest or rape.

Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, a national organization, said the group thinks the U.S. Supreme Court decision will be overturned someday, as do the West Virginia legislators.

“This effort to be ready to protect life at the state level ... is exactly the kind of ground game that policy leaders should be championing across the country,” she said.

West Virginia's Supreme Court in 1993 upheld the right to Medicaid funding for abortions. The state's top court barred enforcement of a West Virginia statute that generally would have prohibited funding it, with similar exceptions as the federal law for cases of rape, incest or dire medical consequences for the woman from pregnancy.

Sen. Mike Romano, a Clarksburg Democrat, questioned Trump's assertion that terms of the old state statute would later apply, including the limited funding allowances. If the amendment is adopted, he predicted that soon after that, legislation will be advanced in West Virginia to outlaw all abortions, including those that save women's lives.

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