CHARLESTON — West Virginia delegates approved a ban on abortions after 20 weeks conception Wednesday, similar to the one Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed last year over constitutionality concerns.
With several lawmakers reciting Bible verses and anti-abortion advocates erupting in rounds of applause, the House of Delegates approved the ban 87-12. Most Democrats sided with the Republican majority.
The bill bans abortions after 20 weeks, with some exemptions for women in medical emergencies. Rape and incest aren't exempted, despite Democratic members' attempts to include them.
"If you so strongly worry about those (rape) victims, which I hope all of you do, then I urge you to not punish the child, but to punish the one who impregnated her without her permission," said Del. Saira Blair, an 18-year-old Berkeley Republican and the nation's youngest lawmaker.
The proposal would also prohibit abortions when women have psychological conditions that could lead them to hurt themselves badly or kill themselves.
Even for abortions that would be exempted, the bill requires doctors to terminate pregnancies in a way that "gives the best opportunity for the fetus to survive," unless the process would kill or irreparably harm the mother.
Doctors and other medical workers who perform banned abortions could face discipline from a medical board, and potentially lose their licenses to practice. Women who get abortions wouldn't be punished.
In nearly two hours of debate Wednesday, proponents of the ban cited moral and religious grounds. Opponents said the proposal is intrusive into doctor-patient relationships and likely unconstitutional.
"What we're doing is robbing other women from making their own choice," said Del. Nancy Guthrie, D-Kanawha. "We're saying to them, 'Our way is the only way. You must adhere to what we believe and our opinions.'"
The bill's leader sponsor, Del. Kelli Sobonya, R-Cabell, urged the governor not to veto the measure. "It was encouraging to see 17 out of the 19 women serving in the House of Delegates vote for this bill. This bill is not a women's issue, this bill is about having compassion for the unborn who feel pain during an abortion."
The bill is based on the assertion that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks, an idea that is disputed in medical research.
The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, West Virginia chapter opposes the bill, saying it doesn't support legislation not based on sound science.
In 2011, the last year with data available, there were six abortions after 20 weeks in West Virginia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Nationally, only about 1-2 percent of abortions are performed after 20 weeks, according to research by the Guttmacher Institute. About 89 percent take place in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
Last year, the Democratic-run Legislature passed a similar proposal.
Tomblin, an anti-abortion advocate and Democrat, vetoed the legislation over concerns that a court would strike it down.
Both bills resemble a law struck down in Arizona in 2013 that the U.S. Supreme Court later decided not to reconsider.
Tomblin says he'd veto the same bill again. The newly minted Republican-led Legislature only needs a simple majority to overturn policy bill vetoes.
Del. Lynne Arvon, R-Raleigh, said she cares only about the bill's moral implications, not whether it's unconstitutional.
And Del. John Shott, R-Mercer, embraced the possibility of a legal challenge.
"If it costs us a few dollars, it's worth it," Shott said.