The arguments continue under the state capitol dome in the final days of this legislative session over HB 4588. The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act states that the unborn child feels pain at 20 weeks and therefore abortions should be prohibited beyond that point, unless there is a medical emergency.
However, the real epicenter for this debate is 350 miles away at the United States Supreme Court.
Over the last several years, the pro-life movement has used pain-capable laws in state legislatures to tackle abortion. Their hope is to get the U.S. Supreme Court to reconsider aspects of Roe vs. Wade.
So far, the high court has not taken the bait. Last January, the court declined to hear an appeal of a lower court decision that struck down Arizona’s law barring most abortions after 20 weeks.
Similar bans in Georgia and Idaho are still in the lower courts, and West Virginia is close to entering the fray, depending on the outcome of 4588.
The legislation passed the House overwhelmingly with bi-partisan support (79-17) and is now moving in the Senate. Tuesday, the Senate Health Committee approved a substitute bill that keeps the 20 week threshold, but reduces the penalty for doctors who violate the law from a felony to a misdemeanor.
The bill next goes to the Senate Judiciary Committee where it faces a more uncertain future. We got a hint of that yesterday when Senator Corey Palumbo, the pro-choice Democrat from Kanawha County who chairs the Judiciary Committee, tried and failed to extend the threshold to 24 weeks.
The Supreme Court has held that a woman’s right to an abortion extends until viability, the point at which the child is potentially able to live outside the womb. That’s generally accepted to be 24 weeks.
Abortions in West Virginia after 20 weeks are rare. During the debate, the pro-choice side has argued that there were only seven last year and they occurred because of severe fetal abnormalities.
But this debate now under the capitol dome is less about those particular procedures than the larger abortion question. If the pro-life side can establish a fetus feels pain at 20 weeks—and there’s considerable medical debate about that–then it follows naturally that the state has a responsibility to provide protection for the unborn.
That’s a question that many individuals struggle with and state legislatures will debate, but ultimately the U.S. Supreme Court will decide.