The Pro-life ban on dismemberment abortions in West Virginia: How it came to pass

By Karen Cross, National Right to Life Political Director

Pro-life Senate President Bill Cole, Karen Cross, and pro-life Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael discuss Senate Bill 10, West Virginia's Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act.

Pro-life Senate President Bill Cole, Karen Cross, and pro-life Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael discuss Senate Bill 10, West Virginia’s Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act.

National Right to Life sent me to the state capitol in Charleston, West Virginia, to work with West Virginians for Life (WVFL) to pass the Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act. It was the first time West Virginia had attempted to pass this particular legislation, so there was a lot of educating to do for legislators, the public and even ourselves!

I would like to share with you how this unbelievable journey — this is the first time in the history of West Virginians for Life that pro-life legislation was introduced and passed in the same year — unfolded.

Before the start of West Virginia’s legislative session, Dr. Wanda Franz, WVFL’s president, and I met with a team of leaders from both Houses to discuss the Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Ban Act. Leadership in both houses is truly pro-life.

This bill protects living unborn children from a brutal form of abortion in which she is torn from her mother’s womb limb from limb. The legislation is based on a National Right to Life model bill that has passed in Kansas and Oklahoma and has been introduced elsewhere.

On January 13, the first day of the session, West Virginia’s Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Ban Act (SB 10 and HB 4004) was introduced. It was double-referenced to the Health Committee and then to the Judiciary Committee.

As the former executive director for West Virginians for Life, I know that guiding legislators through the committee process is challenging, and yet rewarding. Relationships are nurtured and trust is built. Surviving the committee meetings and hearings which, when pro-life legislation is on the agenda, can be grueling and last four or five hours, often leads to more camaraderie – as if we’ve been in battle together.

On February 12, the Senate Health Committee adopted a committee substitute for SB 10.

On February 16, West Virginians for Life held a pro-life rally at the capitol. Despite treacherous weather, hundreds of pro-life West Virginians gathered in support of SB 10. Senate President Bill Cole, Speaker Tim Armstead, Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, and Majority Leader Mitch Carmichael spoke during the rally.

Mr. Cole told the crowd, “As I look forward to West Virginia’s future, I am encouraged knowing we are doing all we can to protect future generations. …We must defend those who cannot defend themselves, and give them every chance at life.”

Pro-life Speaker Tim Armstead said he was pleased to see the pro-life faithful turn out as they always do. Dozens of pro-life legislators joined us to express their support for banning dismemberment abortions.

On February 12, the second reference to the Judiciary Committee was waived, allowing SB 10 to go the full Senate for first, second and third readings, with an amendment pending on third reading.

On February 17, during the third reading (passage) Senators Robert Plymale and Ron Stollings offered an amendment that would have effectively neutralized the bill. Health Committee Chair Ryan Ferns spoke against the amendment, saying it would render the bill “null and void.” The amendment failed, and SB 10 passed by a bi-partisan vote of 24-9.

But now the bill had to be sent to the state House, where the process was started all over again. Passing legislation, especially pro-life legislation, is a very tedious process and requires patience, perseverance, and lots of prayer.

On February 18, the House received SB 10 and four days later the Health Committee held a public hearing.

Suzi Bragg, who suffered for years following her abortion at 18 weeks, testified in favor of the legislation. George Wallace, WVFL board member, submitted letters from several West Virginia OB/Gyns who supported SB 10. George read portions of the doctors’ letters.

Rev. Brian O’Donnell, S.J., spoke in support of SB 10, as did Mary Anne Buchanan, WVFL communications director.

Mary Anne shared testimony from Dr. Anthony Levatino, a former abortionist, who performed more than 100 second-trimester abortions. Levatino said:

“The toughest part of a D&E abortion is extracting the baby’s head. The head of a baby that age is about the size of a large plum and is now free floating inside the uterine cavity. You can be pretty sure you have hold of it if the Sopher clamp is spread about as far as your fingers will allow. You will know you have it right when you crush down on the clamp and see white gelatinous material coming through the cervix. That was the baby’s brains.”

When told the bill was unconstitutional, I shared a written memorandum prepared by Mary Spaulding Balch, J.D., director of state legislation for the National Right to Life Committee.

In 2007 the Partial-birth Abortion Ban (PBA) was upheld by the Supreme Court in Gonzales v. Carhart. Because of the close resemblance of the constitutional issues settled in Gonzales, it is highly likely that the U.S. Supreme Court would uphold the dismemberment ban against constitutional attack.

On February 23, SB 10 was on the agenda in the House Health Committee, where a series of hostile amendments were rejected by voice votes.

On February 24, in Health Judiciary pro-life delegates voted overwhelmingly to send it to the floor with a recommendation that it “do pass.”

It was time for passage in the state House with first, second and third readings.

On Monday, February 29, SB 10 advanced to third reading with an amendment pending.

Delegate Joe Ellington, an ob/gyn, defending SB 10. He discussed a number of procedures in which boundaries have been placed on physicians in the state, including tubal ligation, cloning and euthanasia.

And then…following nearly two hours of debate, an overwhelmingly bi-partisan majority passed the Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act, 86-13.

It now awaits action by Governor Earl Ray Tomblin (D) who received the bill Thursday. He may sign the bill into law, let it become law without his signature, or veto it. If Gov. Tomblin does veto the bill, we will work hard to override his veto. I spoke to the governor’s director of legislative affairs, and he was uncertain which decision the governor would make.

“By banning this procedure West Virginia has protected unborn children from abortionists who could use this procedure to harvest baby body parts,” said West Virginians for Life President Wanda Franz. “We congratulate the members of our legislature, who have voted for this ban and hope that the Governor will sign it.”

It is always a challenging, yet incredible opportunity to work closely with pro-life legislators, to help educate them through the legislative process in order to pass laws that protect unborn children.

Thanks to the many pro-life West Virginians who worked for this law, who educate their neighbors, and who elect pro-life legislators. When SB 10 goes into effect, West Virginia will be better place for all those who value human life.

Look for updates in future National Right to Life News and National Right to Life News Today.