West Virginia is a predominantly conservative, pro-life state, yet it has a liberal policy on taxpayer-funded abortions. According to the Guttmacher Institute, West Virginia is one of just 17 states that “have a policy that directs Medicaid to pay for all or most medically necessary abortions.”
West Virginia’s current policy dates back to 1993, when the state Supreme Court struck down a state law passed the same year that prevented the state-operated Medicaid program from paying for an abortion unless the mother’s life was in danger. Writing for the majority in Women’s Health Center of West Virginia, Inc. v. Panepinto, Justice Margaret Workman argued that the law was an overreach by the state.
“We hold that when state government seeks to act for the common benefit, protection and security of the people in providing medical care for the poor, it has an obligation to do so in a neutral manner so as not to infringe upon the constitutional rights of our citizens,” Workman wrote.
And that’s been the guiding principle in West Virginia ever since. Recently, the number of Medicaid-funded abortions has increased dramatically. Department of Health and Human Resources officials told lawmakers this week that taxpayers paid for 1,560 abortions in 2017, a three-fold increase since 2013. Officials say they don’t know why the numbers have spiked.
The revelation serves as a convenient backdrop for a Republican bill expected to be introduced this session aimed at dramatically reducing the number of abortions that qualify for public funding.
According to tentative language in a draft version of the bill, essential medical services covered by Medicaid would not include abortions “unless in the opinion of a physician such procedures are necessary for the preservation of the life of the woman seeking such a treatment.”
The legislation will have momentum. It is a “caucus bill” meaning the Republican majority in the House has decided that the bill should be a priority this session. Bill supporters continue to solicit co-sponsors and they expect a number of Democrats to sign on as well.
Delegate Kayla Kessinger (R-Fayette), a pro-life supporter of the bill, told me on Talkline Thursday that the legislation is in line with the sentiment of most people in West Virginia and around the country. A January, 2017 Marist poll found that 61 percent oppose the use of taxpayer dollars to fund abortions.
Pro-choice advocates in West Virginia will be working hard to stop the bill. West Virginia Free executive Director Margaret Chapman Pomponio said, “Polling—both national and here in West Virginia—has shown that people don’t want politicians taking abortion coverage away from poor women.”
The bill stands a good chance of passage because of strong bi-partisan pro-life sentiment in both chambers. Governor Jim Justice can be difficult to predict, but he signed two anti-abortion bills during his first year in office and is considered pro-life.
However, the fight won’t stop there. Inevitably there would be a legal challenge from the pro-choice side and the case would end up back before the state Supreme Court. It’s notable that Margaret Workman, who authored the 1993 opinion, remains on the court, but abortion foes believe the court’s makeup now gives them a better chance for success than in 1993.