Twenty-five years ago, the West Virginia Supreme Court issued a decision on abortion that pro-life and pro-choice advocates have been arguing about ever since.
The Court ruled 3-2 in Women’s Health Center of WV, et al. v. Panepinto, et al., that the state had an obligation to pay for an abortion for a woman if she was too poor to pay for it herself.
The decision, authored by Justice Margaret Workman, became a battle line in the fight over abortion. Supporters say the ruling demonstrates the state’s compassion for pregnant women in difficult circumstances and helps protect the right established in Roe v. Wade. Opponents say that taxpayers are under no obligation to pay for what are typically elective abortions.
And that brings us to a defining moment on the issue, as our Brad McElhinny explains here.
On Election Day, West Virginia voters will decide whether to pass or reject Amendment One. The proposed amendment to the state Constitution states, “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion.”
The pro-life movement, which backs the amendment, says it simply means that the state should not use Medicaid dollars to pay for abortion. They argue it is similar to the federal Hyde Amendment, which has been in place since 1977. It prevents the use of federal dollars for abortions except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger or in cases of rape or incest.
Pro-choice advocates maintain the amendment is purposefully confusing, and they are particularly concerned about the first half of the amendment which they believe opens the door to even more restrictions on a woman’s right to choose.
Frankly, the language is unnecessarily blurry. Lawmakers drafting the amendment should have combined the second part of the amendment along with language that mirrored the Hyde Amendment to ensure protections for victims of rape, incest and the mother’s life.
Be that as it may, the fundamental question remains the same for voters—should taxpayers pay for abortions? Former Justice Tom McHugh in his dissent in the 1993 decision wrote that, “As long as the government does not interfere with a woman’s right to choose an abortion, the decisions regarding the funding of abortions should be left to the legislature.”
West Virginia is one of just 17 states that provide Medicaid dollars for abortions. Last January, the State Department of Health and Human Resources reported to the Legislature that in 2017 West Virginia paid $326,103 for 1,560 abortions. What voters must decide on Election Day is whether or not that is an appropriate use of public dollars.
(Editor’s note/correction: An earlier version of the commentary said the Panepinto decision was “Thirty-five years ago.” It should have read “Twenty-five years ago.”)