The “No Constitutional Right to Abortion Amendment” will appear on the November general election ballot in the Mountain State.
The West Virginia House of Delegates, with more than the two-thirds majority needed, decided Monday to ask voters whether the following sentence should be added to the state constitution: “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion.”
The Senate had already voted in favor of the resolution. It passed the House 73-25, with the following Democrats voting with Republicans in favor: Brent Boggs, D-Braxton; Andrew Byrd, D-Kanawha; Kenneth Hicks, D-Wayne; Shirley Love, D-Fayette; Chad Lovejoy, D-Cabell; Dana Lynch, D-Webster; Ricky Moore, D-Raleigh; Ralph Rodighiero, D-Logan; Robert Thompson, D-Wayne.
WV Free, an organization that advocates for a full range of women’s reproductive decisions, and the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia said they plan public-education campaigns opposing the amendment. Anti-abortion groups West Virginians for Life and the National Right to Life Committee were unsure of their next steps but said local anti-abortion groups would be active.
In 1993, the West Virginia Supreme Court overturned a state law that prohibited Medicaid coverage for abortions, except to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape, incest or fetal anomalies. Justices found that the law discriminated against poor women. Medicaid now pays for abortions found to be “medically-necessary,” meaning for a woman’s well-being.
Supporters of the resolution have said they want to undo that Supreme Court decision; they also said they want to make clear that state lawmakers have the right to restrict abortion.
At one point during the hour and a half devoted to speeches on the resolution Monday, Delegate John Shott, R-Mercer and the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, told Delegate Joe Canestraro, D-Marshall, that it was “not correct” that Medicaid currently only pays for medically necessary abortions. He later conceded that “we may be quibbling over terminology.”
“Medically-necessary” is the exact term Chief Justice Margaret Workman used in the opinion she delivered in 1993, finding that lawmakers shouldn’t prohibit Medicaid from paying for abortions with that designation. Workman noted that the law she was overturning did not include protection for women with several health conditions that make pregnancy more dangerous, such as gestational diabetes or hypertension.
Some lawmakers were confused about whether the resolution included any exceptions.
Delegate Ralph Rodighiero, D-Logan, stood to ask if it included exceptions for tubal pregnancies: Shott responded by answering that existing law does protect that.
Rodighiero said “that changes things” and went on to vote for the resolution; it was unclear if he believed Shott was saying the resolution included that exception.
The resolution does not include exceptions.
Opponents have pointed out that it includes no exceptions for rape, incest or the life of the mother. However, supporters have noted that, while the resolution does not include exceptions, the law that was overturned — that they want reinstated — does.
Opponents have noted that the amendment would mean advocates for abortion rights would not be able to rely on the state constitution for any protection from more abortion restrictions, and that ending Medicaid coverage of abortion solely affects poor women and families.
In a statement Monday, the ACLU of West Virginia called the resolution “the most extreme attack on women’s reproductive rights in West Virginia history.”
“Today, we begin an unprecedented eight-month and one day campaign to educate the public on the extreme implications of this radical amendment,” said Joseph Cohen, executive director. He said that campaign will include “engaging citizens across the state” and using “every tool at our disposal.”
“We will be canvassing all over the state, and we will be speaking with voters in all 55 counties,” he said. “We will be reaching out to new voters and supporting groups engaging in voter registration drives. Protecting our constitution and protecting women’s health will undoubtedly be the top priority of the ACLU-WV for the next eight months and one day.”
Wanda Franz, president of West Virginians for Life, said her group will work in support of the amendment.
“We will develop a campaign, and we will be working toward and encouraging people to vote in favor of the amendment,” Franz said. “I don’t know what our strategy is going to be. West Virginians for Life is a well-established grassroots group here in the state. We will be working with our chapters to encourage them to get out the vote.”
West Virginians for Life has said the amendment is meant to undo the 1993 Supreme Court decision.
On Monday, Franz said the part of the amendment that specifies, “Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion” was “included in order to make clear that the state constitution isn’t going to be addressing the abortion issue.”
“It’s the federal Constitution that rules in this case,” she said. She said that does not mean lawmakers are giving the federal government more power.
“The power is already there,” she said. “The right to abortion derives from the federal government.”
Karen Cross, the political director of the National Right to Life Committee, said “information would be passed along” to grassroots groups. She said she didn’t know if the National Right to Life Committee would buy ads in favor of the amendment.
“I don’t know when that conversation will take place,” she said. “I haven’t been back to the office. This just happened.”
Cross, who has said she visits Charleston to lobby on the issue because she is from West Virginia, said she is not a registered lobbyist.
“I don’t come here often enough to have to register to lobby,” she said. “I haven’t been here for weeks. When I come, I come for one day.”
Margaret Chapman Pomponio, executive director of WV Free, said several groups are prepared to launch “a massive public education campaign.” She said they will begin fundraising and educate voters on candidate positions but said their nonprofit status prevents them from recruiting candidates.
“We plan to sit down and have a strategic meeting with partners and funders on the ground and around the country,” she said.
She added that the national partner watching is All Above All, which focuses on abortion funding.
“We’ve always said let’s get through this legislative fight and, if it passes, we will be ready to spring into action,” she said.
Meanwhile, West Virginia law says the ballot also should include the resolution’s summary. Lawmakers have summarized the resolution as follows:
“To amend the West Virginia Constitution to clarify that nothing in the Constitution of West Virginia secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion.”
That summary also will be printed in announcements in newspapers.