Tomblin assesses abortion measure
CHARLESTON, WV -- Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin said he has concerns about whether a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks is constitutional.
The full Legislature passed House Bill 4588 after an emotional debate. It now requires Tomblin's signature to become law.
"The abortion bill obviously is one that causes me some concern because even the legislative attorneys and others said they feel this bill is unconstitutional," Tomblin said. "I'll be looking at all aspects of it once I receive the bill."
In its amended form, it allows for termination after 20 weeks in the instances of non-viable pregnancies. An amendment also reduced penalties for doctors convicted of performing abortions from a felony to misdemeanor.
But the bill didn't pass without a fight. Lawmakers in both chambers — Delegate Meshea Poore and Sen. Erik Wells, both D-Kanawha — made passionate floor speeches and invoked rarely used legislative procedures to try to block the bill. A point of order was called against Wells after he demanded the opportunity to speak prior to the Senate floor vote early Saturday. His request was not granted, but Wells did make a speech after the bill passed.
"I know some folks are thinking I would pull a Wendy Davis," Wells said referencing the Texas state senator who filibustered an anti-abortion bill for 11 hours last year. "All the men know women are stronger and I wouldn't be able to pull it off anyway."
Wells said he thinks votes were cast to make a political statement, not because the bill is good policy. Counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee cautioned members of that committee against passing the bill Thursday, saying it is unconstitutional and case law indicates the U.S. Supreme Court is more likely to uphold bans after 24 weeks.
"It seems to me the worst thing about politics today is how the special interests really do take heart," Wells said. "You have to make sure the right checkmarks are checked."
The focus on "gays, abortions and guns" is what causes West Virginia to rank low among U.S. states, he said.
"We're never going to get past 50th if we're more concerned about the next election than we are the next generation," Wells said.
Wanda Franz, president of pro-life group West Virginians for Life, said in a news release this bill protects unborn babies from feeling pain during abortions.
"It is important that West Virginia has asserted its legitimate concern for the well-being of these innocent babies by protecting them from pain," she said.
Other legislation relating to women and babies also passed Saturday:
n House Bill 4335 relates to a child's right to nurse and extends legal protection to mothers who breastfeed their babies in public. Tomblin still has to sign the bill, but the move means West Virginia is no longer one of few states that doesn't legally protect mothers who nurse in public.
Supporters of the bill argued it encourages breastfeeding and the health benefits for both mother and baby.
Christine Compton, co-founder of the West Virginia Breastfeeding Alliance, said her organization has worked for nine years to get a bill through. She said she thinks attitudes about breastfeeding are changing as more people become educated about the benefits and realize breastfeeding is more of a rights issue and not a sexual issue.
"I think unfortunately when you have issues that involve women's bodies sometimes those issues end up . . . a sexual issue," Compton said.
That reluctance took a backseat this session, thanks in part to some men who stood up for a woman's and child's right to nurse, including Sen. Chris Walters, R-Putnam. Walters is the father of one with another child on the way and spoke in support of the bill both in committee and on the floor of the Senate.
"He was excellent to speak out and help us push it through," Compton said.
Compton said the intent of the law is to help all mothers, especially new or self-conscious moms, have the opportunity to breastfeed in public comfortably.
n Pregnant workers also would receive more legal protection under House Bill 4284. The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act would require certain employers to make reasonable accommodations for pregnant workers, such as frequent breaks or amended job duties, as long as those accommodations don't cause an undue burden on the business.
Under the act, employers also could not deny a job to a qualified applicant based solely on pregnancy.
All three bills still have to go to the governor for his consideration. He has 15 days from receiving the bills to act.