CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — As West Virginia’s Republican supermajority continued advancing a sweeping abortion ban bill Tuesday, Democrats failed for the second time in two days to garner enough support to add exceptions for rape and incest victims.
During an hourslong meeting Tuesday, House Judiciary Committee Republicans overwhelmingly rejected Democrats’ amendment for a rape and incest exception, sending the abortion ban to the full House of Delegates. A similar proposal failed Monday in a different House committee.
“Men perpetrating such horrific acts makes me unsettled at times,” said Republican Del. Pat McGeehan, who noted he has a daughter. He voted against the exception. “It’s very disturbing and these are contentious questions we have to deal with. However, when we confront such evil, we cannot participate in evil itself.”
McGeehan said by creating exceptions, even for rape and incest, lawmakers would be sending the message that “the value of life is not unconditional.”
“An innocent life is still an innocent life, regardless of the evil act,” he said. “We have to have moral absolutism. The real question here is: Is it ever just to punish an innocent person for a crime committed by someone else? My answer is absolutely not.”
The House, comprised of 78 Republicans and 22 Democrats, is next scheduled to meet Wednesday after a public hearing on the abortion bill.
Lawmakers were called by Gov. Jim Justice into a special session starting Monday to consider reducing the state’s income tax. As lawmakers were gaveling in, he abruptly added the abortion law to the agenda. The session began week after a Charleston judge barred West Virginia from enforcing an 1800s-era abortion ban, ruling it unenforceable and superseded by a slew of conflicting modern laws.
On Monday, Justice asked legislators to “clarify and modernize” the state abortion laws.
Similar to the 1800s-era ban, Republicans’ new proposal would bar abortion in almost all cases and makes performing one a felony. Physicians who provide abortions could face three to 10 years in prison.
The bill provides exceptions for an ectopic pregnancy, a “nonmedically viable fetus” or a medical emergency.
When Republicans greenlit the bill in the Judiciary Committee, Democratic Del. Kayla Young pointed out she’s one of only three women in the group of 25 lawmakers. There are no people of color on the committee, and she said women and people of color will be impacted the most by a statewide abortion ban.
“We’re never going to have to deal with this because we’re incredibly privileged people,” she said. “We are making decisions about other people, and we shouldn’t do that. If it’s your religious belief, if it’s your moral belief, that is great for you. But get it away from me, get it out of my body, get it out of my uterus.”
Also during Tuesday’s meeting, Democrats sharply rejected one GOP lawmaker’s proposal for a rape and incest exception that would have permitted abortion up to six weeks gestation and required the assault to be reported to law enforcement.
They said the time frame was too short to help most victims, who may not be able to immediately report to law enforcement. Some victims are children, and confiding in adults might not be safe. And, many people don’t even find out they’re pregnant until after six weeks, they said.
“It may be well-intended, but I think this is a slap in the face,” Democratic Del. Joey Garcia of Marion County said.
Republican Del. Steve Westfall of Jackson County said he limited his proposal to six weeks because he believes life begins when a fetus develops a heartbeat. He said he understood how the narrow time frame might prohibit victims from getting abortions, but that he sought a compromise.
“I think unlimited time is too long, but I’d like to see rape and incest get in there,” he said.
Westfall said he doesn’t support abortion, but would want his four daughters to have a choice if they were ever victims of assault.
Movement on the abortion bill came as work slowed on Justice’s proposal to reduce the state income tax rate by 10%. The bill was scheduled for a second reading Wednesday in the House. If it passes, it would move to the Senate.
Senate President Craig Blair prefers a cut in the state personal property tax. But the state constitution allows only addressing legislation specifically mentioned in the governor’s special session proclamation, so the Senate can’t address those taxes this week.
A 10% reduction is the maximum cut allowed while remaining in compliance with funding stipulations in the American Rescue Plan Act, he said. Justice said the proposal would be retroactive to Jan. 1 and would put $254 million back into residents’ pockets when they file their 2022 taxes.
The governor’s pitch is the third attempt to cut personal state income taxes in the past year.
Associated Press writer John Raby contributed to this report.
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