CHARLESTON — Just one week into the 2020 session, both chambers of the West Virginia Legislature Wednesday passed the first set of bills.
The House passed five bills Wednesday while the Senate passed one piece of legislation. The bills will be sent to the opposite chambers for review, possible amendments, and passage.
House Bill 4007, the Born-Alive Abortion Survivors Protection Act, would require doctors who perform abortions to use their best medical judgment to protect the life of a fetus if it shows signs of breathing or a heartbeat. It includes penalties, including the possible revocation of the doctor’s medical license if he or she does not provide medical attention to the fetus.
Several Democratic House members came out strong against the act, calling it unnecessary, a special interest bill by outside groups, an effort to push conservative voter turnout for pro-life candidates and an “imaginary solution to an imaginary problem,” said Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, D-Monongalia.
“We had heard from a physician that the chances of this happening is about like being struck by lightning,” Fleischauer said. “We have no incidents where this has ever happened in West Virginia, nor have we heard about any evidence from surrounding states. It’s not a solution to anything.”
“Why are we voting on this bill today. Why are we voting on this one week into the session when the candidate filing period just opened,” said Delegate Evan Hansen, D-Monongalia. “Is this really our number one priority for West Virginians?
One abortion provider operates in the state, the Women’s Health Center in Charleston, which doesn’t conduct abortions after the 16-week mark. State law already prohibits abortions after the 20-week mark. Other state laws make fetal homicide a crime, as does a federal law passed by Congress in 2002.
“The very scenario that we are trying to litigate here…I’m telling you this is not possible,” said Delegate Sammie Brown, D-Jefferson. “I’m all for policy that will protect mothers, that will protect infants and that will protect life, but this simply isn’t it.”
House Republicans said the law was needed to strengthen existing anti-abortion laws and to send a signal nationwide to states with more liberal abortion laws.
“The opponents of this bill will tell you we don’t need this law in West Virginia, but we need to send a strong signal to the rest of the country,” said Delegate Tom Bibby, R-Berkeley. “We have to show the rest of the world that we in West Virginia want to stand for pro-life.”
“This is about providing life-sustaining measures for a baby that is born as a result of abortion, nothing more than what would be done for a premature baby that was born at the same gestational age,” said House Majority Whip Kayla Kessinger, R-Fayette.
After much debate, HB 4007 passed 93-5.
House Bill 3039 gives the courts more discretion when deciding child custody issues to give preference to the preference of the child. The law currently places an age limit of 14 for when to take the child’s preference into account. The bill passed 87-11.
House Bill 4004 would create the West Virginia Sentencing Commission within the Governor’s Committee on Crime, Delinquency and Correction. The commission would review sentencing guidelines for crimes, establish priorities based on the severity of crimes, the length of sentences, parole eligibility, parole, and alternatives to incarceration.
A similar bill passed the House last year but was not taken up by the Senate. On Tuesday, HB 4004 was amended to protect West Virginians from being convicted based on their poverty level or inability to pay fines. Delegate Larry Rowe, D-Kanawha, said he wanted to make sure those convicted of crimes are not unfairly punished based on their income-level. The bill passed 97-1.
House Bill 4022 would allow the chancellor of the Higher Education Policy Commission to also serve as the chancellor of the Council for Community and Technical College Education. By law, both positions are separate. CTC Chancellor Sarah Tucker also serves as acting chancellor for the HEPC. The bill passed 97-1.
House Bill 4103 makes changes to the structure of the Office of Drug Control Policy with the Department of Health and Human Resources. The bill passed 97-1.
On the Senate side, lawmakers passed Senate Bill 94, allowing West Virginians with physical disabilities to vote in primary and general elections by electronic absentee ballot. The bill passed 33-0.