CHARLESTON — For the first time in 46 years, West Virginia’s first — and, for the past seven years, only — abortion provider will stop offering abortion services to patients as an “archaic” and “barbaric” state law from 1882 becomes enforceable again due to the Supreme Court of the United States overturning Roe v. Wade.
Staff at the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia contacted between 60 and 70 patients Friday morning who had abortions scheduled over the next three weeks to tell them the services legally could not be offered anymore.
“Some broke down and couldn’t speak through their sobbing. Some were so stunned and didn’t know what to say. Some didn’t understand what was happening,” said Katie Quinonez, executive director of the Women’s Health Center. “People have been having abortions since the beginning of time, and I want to be clear: (outlawing abortions) isn’t going to end them.”
West Virginia residents in need of abortion services will now have to travel “hundreds if not thousands of miles” out of state to receive the health care safely, Quinonez said. They can visit https://abortionfinder.org to find the nearest verified abortion provider.
The Women’s Health Center will remain open for other health care resources including screenings and reproductive care outside of abortion, among other services.
The pre-Roe state law that bans the services is “far-reaching and extremely broad,” Quinonez said. It criminalizes the act of abortion as a federal crime for the person who receives the service and the medical professional who provides it. There are no exceptions in the law that take into account the health or age of the person who is pregnant, the circumstances that led to the pregnancy — like rape or incest — or medical complications that could make the fetus unviable for life.
While the law is technically enforceable now that Roe is off the books, it’s unclear what that enforcement could look like, said Loree Stark, legal director with the West Virginia arm of the American Civil Liberties Union. In Texas, Quinonez said, patients presenting to medical providers with miscarriages have been investigated by police for suspected abortions under a somewhat similar law.
“We could see more of that here,” Quinonez said.
Over the coming days, Stark said members of the ACLU will work through the Supreme Court’s 200-page decision overturning Roe to understand more about how it will interact with state code realistically.
“We’re exploring aggressively all the different avenues that can be taken, how it relates to federal law and the state law here,” Stark said. “West Virginians should be able to get care they need, and no one should be forced to carry a pregnancy against their will.”
The Supreme Court’s decision comes with economic impacts for West Virginia as well as health ones. Those most affected by abortion bans are more likely to be low-income individuals and people of color, according to the Guttmacher Institute. If unplanned or unwanted pregnancies are forced to be carried to term, the state’s already overburdened foster care system could “implode,” Quinonez said.
The consequences for West Virginia — one of the poorest states in the nation with some of the worst health outcomes — will be very real and devastating, said Alisa Clements with Planned Parenthood.
Despite this, the state’s political leadership celebrated Friday’s announcement. Gov. Jim Justice applauded the Supreme Court’s “courageous” decision and said he “would not hesitate” to call a special session of the Legislature if “clarifications” need to be made to state laws.
Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said he was “grateful” for such a “terrific” decision from the Supreme Court.
State Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, issued a joint statement saying they stand with “a majority of West Virginians” against abortion access.
In 2018, about 295,500 West Virginia voters — 16% of the state’s total population — approved Amendment One, which removed protections for abortion care from the state’s constitution and restricted the use of Medicaid funds for such services. The constitutional amendment passed with 51.7% of votes cast.
That same year, a survey by Hart Research showed more than 66% of West Virginians supported access for all reproductive health care, including abortion.
“(Lawmakers) talk a lot about how a majority of West Virginians support anti-abortion measures, that they’re ‘pro-life,’ and that is absolutely not true,” Clements said. “I think this state is very much divided on abortion. That’s something we need to get across to (legislators).”
On Friday, Clements and other reproductive health care advocates said they’ll be talking with the state’s legislators in hopes of repealing West Virginia’s pre-Roe abortion ban.
“Call the people in power and tell them you support safe, legal abortion. That’s always going to be part of our messaging, and it’s not going to change,” Clements said. “We want to mitigate harm. We don’t want patients to suffer. We don’t want doctors to be criminalized. … We want people to be able to access safe, legal abortion care.”