Earlier this week, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice placed a moratorium on all “elective” procedures and surgeries in the state through an executive order, and at a Wednesday news conference, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey said the order will apply to “abortion facilities, as well.”
Morrisey’s office did not respond to multiple requests to clarify or elaborate on his statement, which — if it does apply to abortions — may contradict language in the governor’s executive order.
The executive order mandates all medical procedures that are “not immediately medically necessary to preserve the patient’s life or long-term health” should be rescheduled for later dates in order to ensure equipment and supplies are being utilized in the best way to confront COVID-19.
However, it also states that “procedures that cannot be performed consistent with other law at a later date ... shall not be considered ‘elective’ under this Order.”
Per West Virginia state code, abortions cannot be performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy, with exceptions for life-threatening situations. Anyone who performs an abortion after 20 weeks without an approved exception would be subject to penalties for acting “outside the scope of practice permitted by law,” according to code.
With no clarification offered, those who work with reproductive rights in the state are keeping an eye on how the situation progresses, wrote Margaret Chapman Pomponio, chief executive officer of reproductive rights group West Virginia Free, in an emailed statement.
“WV FREE is closely monitoring access to abortion in light of [Morrisey’s] statements during [Wednesday’s] press conference. Abortion is a safe and essential part of health care. During this public health crisis, WV FREE’s top concern is the safety and well-being of West Virginians. Efforts to politicize and stigmatize reproductive health care during a pandemic are outrageous and wrong,” Pomponio wrote. “We must trust health care providers to act in the best interest of their staff and patients. COVID-19 has already laid bare serious inequities in our health, education and economic systems. We must not allow the leadership of our state to play politics at this time and exacerbate already tenuous access to necessary and safe reproductive health care.”
Politicians in other states have tried to use elective procedure bans to curtail abortions in the face of COVID-19, but so far they’ve faced legal challenges from branches of the American Civil Liberties Union and reproductive rights organizations. Federal judges have overturned and blocked these efforts in Ohio, Texas and Alabama.
In Ohio, U.S. District Judge Michael Barrett placed a two week restraining order on limiting abortions. In his order, he stated that a woman’s doctor should have a role in deciding whether a procedure was essential or non-essential, and that stopping abortions would not lead to a “net saving” of personal protection equipment that could help with the response to COVID-19.
The Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, in Charleston, is the only facility in the state that performs abortions. In an emailed statement, Katie Quiñones, director of the Women’s Health Center, said it is critical that procedures and medical treatment for pregnant women — including but not limited to abortion — remains available throughout the pandemic.
“As health care professionals, the health and safety of our patients is our foremost concern. We are committed to doing everything we can to protect the health of our patients, our staff, and our community while providing access to essential health care,” Quiñones wrote. “As medical experts have recognized, even during a pandemic, pregnant people require health care, whether that is abortion care or prenatal care and childbirth services. That care cannot be delayed until after this crisis is over.”