CHARLESTON — A watered-down version of House Bill 4588, designed to protect unborn babies was approved Tuesday afternoon by the state senate’s health and human resources committee.
The new bill, touted as one of the few pieces of pro-life legislation to stand a chance of passage in several legislative sessions, eliminated nearly all of the legislative findings in the original house bill and cut the penalty for violating the law from a felony to a misdemeanor.
In the bill passed last week by the state house of delegates, anyone who violated provisions of the protect the unborn baby act would have faced a felony charge. Upon conviction, the person charged under the act would have been subject to a fine of not more than $5,000 and/or would face imprisonment for not less than one nor more than five years. The amended version, approved by the senate committee, reduces the crime to a misdemeanor and provides for a fine of not more than $4,000, upon conviction.
Boone County State Senator Ron Stollings chairs the HHR committee. While he appeared neutral concerning the bill’s amendments during the meeting, Stollings admitted later that the original version had been “watered-down some.”
Left intact, however, was a part of the bill that protects unborn babies from 20 weeks gestation to birth from most abortions. Exceptions were made for some abortions, particularly when the life of the mother is at risk.
Supporters of changing the time frame insisted that, in other states, courts have upheld statutes that protect fetuses after 24 weeks but not 20. Kanawha County Democrat Corey Palumbo suggested that the gestation period would not overcome any court challenges.
Doctors who testified Tuesday said, however, that abortion decisions should be “between a patient and her physician, not the state legislator.” Pro-choice advocates argued that the law would cut down on the number of doctors opening practices for women and children in the state.
Republican Minority Leader Mike Hall of Putnam County appeared to signal GOP support for the measure when he asked questions concerning the gestation calculations. Hall pointed out that, using the terminology currently in the bill, a fetus will likely have developed 22 weeks before being protected from an abortion. The key to calculating the fetus’ development appeared to be a debate over whether it should be counted from the mother’s last menstrual period or from when the pregnancy is actually verified.
While the matter has been a hot topic of debate between pro-life and pro-choice advocates, West Virginians for Life legislative liaison John Carey said his group is “generally happy that we, at least, have a start on pro-life legislation.”
The bill will now go to the senate judiciary committee, chaired by Palumbo. This is the final week of the current legislative regular session. Whatever bill is eventually approved by the full senate, it is now assured of having to return to the house of delegates for concurrence before it can become law.