Public hearings bear that name for a reason. Governing bodies conduct them to gather information, input and, sometimes, to ask questions.
But hearing and listening are two different things. Listening is dangerous. It might cause lawmakers to actually ponder what they’re about to do and ask themselves if it’s right. Many legislators would like to avoid that, if at all possible.
Case in point, several members of the West Virginia Legislature scrolled on their phones or hunched over their laptops for 90 minutes Wednesday morning when dozens of their constituents argued passionately in opposition to the state’s proposed abortion ban. The House bill is the result of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning 50 years of legal precedent last month and ending a woman’s federal right to privacy.
In all, 90 of the more than 100 people signed up to speak at the public hearing had the opportunity to comment. Of those, 69 opposed the ban, which would uphold most of a law from the 1800s that makes abortion a felony. Nuances in the newly proposed law do take modern medicine into account and allow exceptions for sexual assault and incest (added in the amendment stage Wednesday) and for the health of a mother (although that last bit was also in the 19th-century law, albeit in a more vague fashion). Comments during the hearing were limited to 45 seconds.
Let that sink in for a moment. A law that would force most girls and women, with a few exceptions, to carry pregnancies to term or face up to 10 years in prison, along with any doctor convicted of performing the procedure, was slapped together Monday afternoon and the House of Delegates passed it by Wednesday. Members of the public got 90 minutes at 45 seconds a pop to give their input.
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During that minimal effort of showing public engagement, several legislators couldn’t even pretend to care or show that the opinions voiced meant anything to them. Women who had never told their stories of sexual assault, being raped by a relative and/or seeking an abortion, bared their souls in a public forum and pleaded with legislators to keep abortion legal. Yet some lawmakers wouldn’t even look at them, thumbing the screens of their iPhones instead.
Were these elected officials looking for social media mentions? Were they idly texting? Perhaps seeking outside input? Maybe they were just browsing headlines.
It’s always possible these legislators were intentionally sending the message that they didn’t care what 76% of those who spoke Wednesday had to say about this slapdash, short-sighted bill, which now heads to the Senate, where it’s always possible vital amendments could be stripped and process started all over again.
Not caring what people potentially affected by policies have to say is a common theme with the West Virginia Legislature, exacerbated by Republican supermajorities in the House and state Senate. Someone can yell until they’re blue in the face or calmly lay out an argument. It can be gut-wrenching. It can be cold and precise. It doesn’t matter. The response is always the same: “Your time is up, please step away from the podium.”
Then, lawmakers go and do what they were planning to do anyway, even if the issue severely diverges between a blanket political position and real-world complexities. If a legislator has adopted the prior, no sense in even allowing the possibility of being moved by the latter.