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Morrisey received 10,000 pages of abortion comments

CHIP ELLIS | Gazette file photo A crowd gathered in the state Capitol last month to protest a bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks in most circumstances. The bill passed the Legislature, but was vetoed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who said it was unconstitutional and would be struck down in court.

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey’s office collected more than 10,000 pages of comments about abortion regulations during an approximately one-month period last summer, but officials aren’t saying how many people wrote in favor of increasing regulations versus how many wrote against doing so.

Redacted versions of the comments — placed in 21 three-ring binders — were made available for inspection to the Gazette last week, five months after the Gazette requested them under the West Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

“Our office received approximately 10,000 comments and documents during the public comment period and had to spend many hundreds of hours responding to the FOIA request, which included reviewing, printing and preparing the documents for release and redacting individual’s private information,” Beth Ryan, spokeswoman for the attorney general’s office, wrote in an emailed statement.

Ryan did not respond when asked if the majority of comments were in favor or opposed to more regulations on abortion. Ryan declined to answer questions over the phone, insisting on emailed responses.

The office also did not know how many of the comments came from West Virginia residents, compared with those from outside the state.

“While we do not know the exact breakdown of in-state versus out-of-state comments (due to insufficient information included in the comments) it appears far more comments came from outside of West Virginia than from within the state,” Ryan wrote.

It is unclear how the attorney general’s office intends to use the information collected in the public comments. Ryan did not respond when asked if the attorney general would make a report from the responses.

“The comments are available for public inspection within our office,” she wrote.

The attorney general’s office told the Gazette it would have to pay 25 cents a page to copy the 10,107 pages for a total of $2,526.75 to obtain the documents.

The office also initially turned down a request to buy copies of a portion of the comments, saying that if the newspaper wanted any of the documents it would have to pay for all of them. The office later reconsidered and let the Gazette make copies of several pages.

Morrisey’s office solicited the comments beginning in July 2013 and ending about a month later, on Aug. 16.

The attorney general sought comments relating to, among other things “regulations and standards for health care facilities generally and abortion clinics specifically, compliance and auditing of facilities and providers,” according to the attorney general’s office website.

“Our review has determined that West Virginia is one of only nine states in the nation that legally permits abortions to be performed until birth,” Ryan wrote.

“The review also concluded that state law allows non-physicians to perform an abortion and that the amount of regulations governing abortion in West Virginia is sparse when compared to other states.

“With respect to our review, we will continue to analyze issues pertaining to the regulation of abortion as they arise…Through this process, we have concluded that West Virginia is an outlier among states when it comes to the regulation of abortion and that our state should consider enacting legislation that will, at a minimum, bar late-term abortions,” Ryan wrote.

In March, the West Virginia Legislature passed a bill outlawing abortions after 20 weeks gestation. Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin vetoed the bill, however, calling it unconstitutional and a “detriment” to women’s health.

Morrisey started his review of abortion regulations in June last year, following a lawsuit filed by a Charleston woman against Dr. Rodney Stephens and the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia.

Itai Gravely, 26, is represented by the Family Policy Council of West Virginia, a conservative evangelical group that opposes abortion. Gravely alleges that Stephens botched her abortion and left the head of the fetus in her uterus.

The Family Policy Council is one of three agencies that requested access to the public comments under the Freedom of Information Act.

Allen Whitt, president of the Family Policy Council of West Virginia, said after a cursory look through one of the 21 binders of comments, the majority — 22 to 1 — appear to be from people who live outside of West Virginia.

Whitt said his organization agrees with the attorney general’s office that West Virginia has too few regulations as compared with other states.

“As long as abortions are going be legal I think we [have a] responsibility to women that make the unfortunate choice to go through with that procedure for those facilities to be maintained and operated with a level of oversight that is equal to or exceeds any other medical facility in the state,” Whitt said.

Many of the comments from people opposing increased abortion regulations came from supporters of WV Free, a pro-abortion rights group. Executive Director Margaret Chapman Pomponio said, by her estimates, at least 8,400 of the comments submitted were in opposition of increased abortion regulations.

“The public has spoken loudly and clearly by submitting thousands of reasoned comments by showing up by the hundreds at demonstrations at the Capitol and around the state,” Chapman Pomponio wrote in an email. “They stood shoulder to shoulder in committee rooms during session. They made their views known through statewide polls — noting they’d rather have our politicians focus on clean water, jobs and the economy. So the people have spoken. The question now is, will the government listen?”

Chapman Pomponio pointed to a report from her organization that outlines the various restrictions and regulations on abortion already in place in the state.

She said the fact that it took a Freedom of Information Act request to get the attorney general’s office to release the documents is “suspect.”

“We can’t know for certain why this information wasn’t released during legislative session — at a time when a regressive attack on abortion took up an extraordinary amount of time and resources,” Chapman Pomponio wrote. “Perhaps knowing that a crushing 84 percent of public comments submitted showed opposition to further restrictions might have changed the course of session. Of this we are certain: WV Free and the women’s health community will be sure that legislators have this information moving forward.”

Reach Lori Kersey

at or 304-348-1240.

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