Leah Willingham Published

W.Va. Senate Committees Advance Bill To Ban Abortion Because Of Disability

Senate Finance Committee - Feb 22 2022.jpg

West Virginia lawmakers have advanced a bill that would prevent people from getting an abortion because they know or believe their child will be born with a disability.

The bill is titled “The Unborn Child with Down Syndrome Protection and Education Act,” but it would apply to any and all disabilities except in the case of medical emergency and for severe fetal conditions that are “incompatible with life outside the womb.”

SB 468 passed through the Senate Finance Committee with little discussion Thursday and is now up for consideration before the full Senate.

An earlier version of the bill that did not provide an exemption for severe fetal conditions drew debate among lawmakers and outcry from a physician who testified before the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee on Tuesday.

“We just think it’s kind of inhumane to force someone to carry a pregnancy that they know is not going to result in a child that’s going to live or have a chance of surviving,” said Dr. David Jude, Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.

Jude said apart from the lack of an exemption for possibly fatal conditions, the bill made him uncomfortable because it takes away a patient’s right to make a vital health decision.

“As OBGYNs, we take issue with interfering with the patient’s ability to choose what’s best for her,” he said.

During that meeting, lawmakers shot down an amendment to the bill that would have created an exemption for disabilities that are “incompatible with life once the fetus is born.”

That was after Jude’s testimony and that of an Elkview mother of two boys, Emily Black, who shared her story of having to have an induced abortion at 20 weeks. Black found out during a regular scan that her baby had a hole in her heart and severe scoliosis. The doctor could not visualize any kidneys and bladder, she said.

Republican Sen. Mike Azinger, a sponsor of the bill, said during Tuesday’s meeting he did not think there should be an exemption, even in possibly fatal cases, because doctors can be proven wrong.

“I see on Facebook, these parents holding a baby that was supposedly going to have all kinds of problems at birth, maybe even not live, and they’re perfectly fine,” he said. “Or, the prognosis prior to birth was not nearly as bad as what it turned out to be.”

The health committee was split on the bill with a 6-6 vote, meaning the amendment failed.

But when presenting the bill to Finance Committee lawmakers Thursday, Senate Finance attorney Jeff Johnson said he had a new version that incorporated the fatal conditions exemption. He provided no explanation on why the change was made.

The bill heading to the Senate would require physicians to submit a report to the state for each abortion they perform making them aware of “the presence or presumed presence of any disability in the unborn human being had been detected.” The report would need to include the date of the abortion, the method used to conduct the abortion and to confirm that the doctor asked the patient whether they were choosing to get an abortion because the baby could have a disability.

The reports would have to be submitted within 15 days of each abortion, according to the bill. Patients’ names must be omitted.

A physician who violates the law could see their license to practice medicine suspended or revoked. An earlier version that made it so doctors could face criminal charges was eliminated in the Senate Health and Human Resources Committee.

Katie Quinonez, head of West Virginia’s only abortion provider, said Thursday that staff at the Women’s Health Center of West Virginia don’t question patients’ reasons for having an abortion. But she said she’s never heard of a patient seeking abortion care because their baby is presumed to have down syndrome or any other disability.

“If this bill passes, it will force providers to interrogate their patient’s reasons for having an abortion,” she said. “It could force doctors to investigate their patients and will irreversibly harm the clinician-patient relationship. It could force patients to be in the position to lie to their physician — a person they should be able to be completely honest with because their health depends on it.”