In front of abortion rights protesters, Senate advances amendment

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — While protesters dressed in garb inspired by “A Handmaid’s Tale” looked on in the gallery, senators advanced a resolution that would change the state constitution to say there is no right to abortion beyond what legislators put into law.

Senators discussed amending the resolution on Thursday, which was also “All Kinds Are Welcome Here Day” at the Capitol.

The resolution passed out of Senate Judiciary earlier this week on “Pro-Life Day.”

The measure would amend the state Constitution to say there is no presumed right to abortion.

It still has significant hurdles to become law.

It would need to pass the full Senate by a two-thirds majority vote, pass the House by a two-thirds majority vote and then pass as a constitutional amendment on citizens’ ballots next November.

The new section to be added to the state Constitution would say:

“Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion.”

The introduced version of the bill had another section dealing with particular circumstances. It said:

“The people retain the right through their elected state representatives and State Senators to enact, amend, or repeal statutes regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest or when necessary to save the life of the mother.”

That language was removed in Judiciary Committee.

Corey Palumbo

Senator Corey Palumbo, D-Kanawha, moved during Thursday’s floor session to amend back in language dealing with instances of rape, incest or protecting the life of the mother. His amendment wound up being defeated with 7 senators voting for it, 22 against and five absent.

“I think this is the first time the Constitution would be used to restrict rights in the state,” Palumbo said to his fellow senators.

Charles Trump

Judiciary Chairman Charles Trump, R-Morgan, argued against Palumbo’s amendment, saying the resolution is meant to assure legislative say-so on abortion policy in West Virginia.

He said state code already reflects concerns about rape, incest or the life of the mother. Trump said keeping those instances in the state constitution would go against the intent of the resolution.

“Is there a constitution in any other state that expressly guarantees the right to abortion?” Trump asked.

Mike Romano

Senator Mike Romano, D-Harrison, argued against the resolution.

“If you’re not playing politics, common sense tells us we cannot ignore someone’s life that’s on the line,” Romano said.

Over the past few months, conservative legislators have been scrutinizing Medicaid funding of abortions in West Virginia. The number of state-funded medical necessary abortions has more than tripled in the past five years.

The House of Delegates has been considering legislation that would change the terms of Medicaid-funded abortion to instances where the life of the mother is at risk, rather than instances of medical necessity.

West Virginia is one of 17 states where taxpayers pay for abortions for poor women.  The policy dates back to 1993 in Women’s Health Center of WV, et al. v. Panepinto, et al. before the state Supreme Court.

Margaret Workman

Justice Margaret Workman, who remains on the court, wrote for the majority that the state, acting “for the common benefit, protection and security of the people,” had an obligation to provide medical care for the poor “in a neutral manner so as to not infringe upon the constitutional rights of our citizens.”

Part of that medical care was abortion.

The amendment being considered in West Virginia’s Senate was inspired by one in Tennessee that recently survived a constitutional challenge over the way it was instituted.

After three years of legal challenge — focused more on Tennessee’s vote-counting methods than on abortion law — a federal appeals court earlier this month upheld the amendment.

That state’s 2014 amendment also removed the right to abortion from the state constitution. It, too, said “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion.”

A final vote in West Virginia’s Senate is likely to take place on Friday.

The issue has received some national attention, including from The Huffington Post.

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