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Abortion recedes as major W.Va. lawmaker issue

Mar. 09, 2009 @ 12:00 AM

CHARLESTON -- West Virginia lawmakers have so far introduced 52 bills that would restrict abortion or declare that it isn't a right under the state constitution.

But it's been four years since abortion opponents in the Mountain State have scored a major legislative victory. The 2005 law, which treats the unborn as separate victims in most crimes of violence, was the last success before a drought that's lasted three consecutive sessions and which is threatening to stretch to a fourth.

Lawmakers, occupied with staving off the deficits that have dragged down nearly every other state and with roughly $1.8 billion in federal stimulus dollars, seem to have misplaced their once dependable desire to advance the goals of abortion foes.

"The spirit in both the Senate and the House, especially, has changed," said Margaret Chapman, executive director of WV FREE, which supports abortion rights. "Passing legislation for the sake of satisfying a special interest group has seen its day, or so we hope."

The pressing concerns of the economy may take away lawmakers' desire for what could be a fight on a contentious abortion bill.

"We're not just in economic hard times, we're in an economic crisis," said West Virginia Wesleyan University political scientist Robert Rupp. "When economic survival is your number one concern, your interest is more centered on jobs and the budget than on major social issues."

West Virginia has consistently seen one of the lowest abortion rates in the country, with the Guttmacher Institute pegging it at 6.7 abortions per 100,000 women of childbearing age in 2005, compared to the national average of 19.4.

Additionally, West Virginia politics is theoretically a solid wall of opposition to the procedure, from Gov. Joe Manchin to most of the leaders in both legislative houses.

But WV FREE has seen success not only in the failure of bills it condemns as divisive and ineffective, Chapman said, but also in convincing lawmakers that a better strategy to reduce abortion is to reduce unintended pregnancies.

The group will be marking this sense of accomplishment by hosting public events with two renowned abortion rights supporters in Charleston this year -- former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders and famed feminist Gloria Steinem.

"After many years of steadfastly working, we're finally getting to the point where our efforts are paying off," Chapman said.

By contrast, the largest anti-abortion group, West Virginians for Life, has seen bills it favors languish in committees and has experienced significant leadership turnover in recent years.

Brian Louk, the group's executive director, dismisses the suggestion that abortion is losing steam as an issue in the Capitol.

"West Virginians are pro-life, and they don't want their tax dollars going to abortion on demand," he said.

The group is backing a bill this year that would limit Medicaid funding for abortion to the federally required instances of rape, incest or cases where the mother's life is in danger. A similar bill was supported by the group last year, but was bottled up in the legislative process, the fate that met its favored bills in 2006 and 2007.

This year, the group is pinning its hopes to new House Majority Leader Brent Boggs, D-Braxton, who has a record of staunch opposition to abortion.

"We're very excited about Brent Boggs," Louk said. "He's the main sponsor of the legislation we're supporting, and we're optimistic about it with him taking that role."

Boggs routinely co-sponsors anti-abortion measures, including two so far this session. But he also stands by the committee process to which he attributes the lack of progress for such bills.

"The one thing we can't do is bypass the committee process, for whatever the reason," said Boggs, D-Braxton. "The committee chairs set the agenda. I would urge any member who has concerns about any bill, on any topic, to express those views to the committee chairs."

Boggs also said he hasn't ruled out any abortion-related proposals advancing this session.

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