West Virginia House opposes constitutional abortion rights

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West Virginia lawmakers say the main goal of a constitutional amendment they are proposing is to end Medicaid funding for abortions — but opponents say the change could lead to a future ban on abortions altogether.

The House on Monday voted 73-25 to pass the resolution, which was approved by the Senate a month ago and will now go before voters in a November referendum.

The resolution says: "Nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of an abortion."

Supporters of the amendment said abortions would remain legal in West Virginia under federal law, but the state would not be obligated to pay for them.

A former state law prohibited Medicaid-funded abortions except when a woman's life was endangered or in cases of rape or incest. That changed in 1993 when West Virginia's top court upheld Medicaid funding under broader circumstances. Now the law only requires a doctor's determination that a Medicaid abortion is "medically necessary."

Amendment supporter and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Shott said that provision has been too loosely interpreted.

Since the ruling, there have been 35,000 abortions, said Shott, a Republican from Bluefield. "There are young lives that were terminated because somebody got upset they got pregnant," he said.

Opponents said the proposed amendment could clear the way for the Legislature to ban Medicaid-funded abortions even in cases of rape, incest or when a woman or girl's health is at risk. And they worried that it could lead to a full abortion ban should the U.S. Supreme Court reverse its historic 1973 ruling upholding a woman's federal constitutional right to abortion.

"It is clearly taking a right away that is presumed to exist based upon current law in the state of West Virginia," said Del. Tim Miley, a Bridgeport Democrat. Instead of amending the constitution, lawmakers should tighten the definition of medical necessity or investigate any reports of doctors improperly applying it, he said.

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Hyde Amendment, which prohibited using federal funds to pay for abortions except to save a woman's life. That was later amended by Congress to also allow federal funding to terminate pregnancies from incest or rape.

Last year, West Virginia's Medicaid program paid $326,103 for 1,560 abortions for poor women, state data show. That was about 340 more than the previous year.

With the proposed constitutional amendment, "politicians in Charleston voted to change our 146-year-old constitution from a document that enumerates and protects our rights, into a document that tells us what rights we don't have," the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia said.

"This is the most extreme attack on women's reproductive rights in West Virginia history."

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