Sen. Mike Maroney

During the 2022 West Virginia Legislature, W.Va. Sen. Mike Maroney supported a bill that prohibited an abortion if a woman tells her physician the child has a disability.

Over the last two decades, West Virginia went from one of the bluest states to one of the reddest. It also went from a state with expansive abortion access to one that will likely see the end of the procedure should the U.S. Supreme Court overturn Roe v. Wade this summer.

As one of the nation’s most rural states, coal production is the economic centerpiece. When Democrat-led environmental regulations began to impact its production, many of the state’s workers blamed the party and shifted right. Conservative leadership took the opportunity to shore up abortion restrictions and successfully so in the latest session.

The battle over abortion access reached an apex in March, when Republicans were able to pass Senate Bill 468, also known as the Unborn Child with Down Syndrome Protection and Education Act. The law prohibits patients from terminating a pregnancy based on the possibility that the fetus may develop a disability unless in a medical emergency. If violated, professionals would be subject to discipline from licensing boards. It goes into effect in June.

Lawmakers also pushed a bill to ban abortions after 15 weeks except in cases of medical emergency and severe fetal abnormality — near identical to the Mississippi law before SCOTUS. The law would have reduced the state’s current abortion ban at 22 weeks, but failed to pass in the final hours of the legislative session.

“It was a victory,” said West Virginia Free CEO Margaret Chapman Pomponio, but she said that she still fears that when the SCOTUS ruling emerges, the state will push for further restrictions.

The case in reference — Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization — is currently before the Supreme Court. Many legal experts believe it is the case that could strike down Roe v. Wade — the long standing precedent that constitutionally protects the rights of individuals to have an abortion without excessive government regulation. In doing so, discretion on abortion access could be left to individual states.

West Virginia is one of nine states that has pre-Roe legislation in place, meaning if Roe is overturned, the law could be restored and all abortions would be banned statewide.

The Guttmacher Institute found that limiting abortion access disproportionately impacts low income individuals. Pomponio contended this would be particularly harmful in the state that already has a high poverty rate. According to a 2020 report by the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, the state had a poverty rate of 16%, 3.7% higher than the national average. Women who live in rural communities also have a higher maternal mortality rate than those that live in urban areas due to decreased access to healthcare, a United Health Foundation report found. About 64% of West Virginians live in rural areas, according to state data.

“The reasons women give for having an abortion underscore their understanding of the economic impact unplanned childbearing would have on themselves and their families,” the Guttmacher Institute report said. “Most abortion patients say that they cannot afford a child or another child, and most say that having a baby would interfere with their work, school or ability to care for their other children.”

Pomponio added that laws that restrict health care options are particularly harmful because it means individuals must travel to receive needed care. And in a state known for its scenic, yet winding roads that could make travel difficult and dangerous.

While conservative lawmakers lost in reducing weeks in which an abortion can take place, Pomponio said she knows the battle is not over.

“The fact is that often conservatives will say that West Virginia is a so-called pro life state. However, we have polled extensively on this question over the years and consistently, we get results that reflect what our experiences are living in West Virginia … which is, West Virginians are compassionate people and they are opposed to government overreach, which all of this is,” Pomponio said.

West Virginias for Life President Wanda Franz sees the abortion legislation as an absolute necessity.

In 2018, West Virginia for Life was at the forefront in pushing the constitutional amendment which states: “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires funding of abortion.”

The amendment narrowly passed by 3 percentage points, and denied medicaid funding for abortions.

Franz said her organization will continue to push for more restrictive legislation and ideally return the state to its pre-Roe laws. She added that in the coming legislation, her organization will work on a number of life-protecting laws that will ban the “heinous” practice and any laws that “allow us to protect babies from conception.”

“This is not a moderate situation, abortion is an extreme situation,” Franz said. “[Abortion access] puts us on the same footing as China, North Korea and other autocratic countries that have no respect for human life.”

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