Let voters decide on abortion directly

We’re not fans of special legislative sessions (which you already know if you regularly read our editorials). However, every once in a blue moon, they can be justified, and the concurrent May interims and special session showed that they can be done responsibly, without abusing taxpayer resources.

That is why we suggest Gov. Jim Justice call a second special session to coincide with the August interim meetings to consider a proposed constitutional amendment that was ignored during the May special session.

At the May interims, Democratic gubernational candidate Steve Williams delivered a petition to legislators requesting that Justice “include a constitutional amendment restoring reproductive freedom on the agenda for the special session in May.” At the time it was delivered, the petition had 2,505 signatures. At the time of this writing, the online petition is still active and is up to 2,551 signatures. (You can find the petition here: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/protect-reproductive-freedom?source=rdrct. While it is linked to Williams’ campaign, you do not have to contribute or sign up to sign the petition.)

The request, of course, was ignored. We would like to see it revived in August, which hopefully won’t be too late to get the amendment on the ballot for November. If the amendment is approved by the Legislature to appear before voters, there would be two full months to educate the electorate on the amendment’s purpose and phrasing.

This could be complicated by the fact West Virginia already has a constitutional amendment expressly stating there is nothing in the state’s constitution that protects the right to abortion. That amendment was passed in 2018 — a midterm election year, which historically has lower voter turnout than presidential election years. Consider that voter turnout topped 700,000 in 2016 and 800,000 in 2020, but turnout was less than 600,000 in 2018, and the amendment passed by a difference of less than 20,000 votes, 51.73% to 48.27%. It was also at a time when Roe v. Wade maintained a national protection for abortion care that superseded state laws; therefore, it didn’t really matter what the state constitution said. It doesn’t help that the amendment’s language was confusing: If you voted “yes,” you were actually voting against abortion protection.

Things are different now. With Roe overturned, conservative lawmakers are stripping away reproductive rights at an alarming pace. They’ve banned abortion or effectively banned it through absurd limitations — often interfering with standard care for miscarriages and abnormal pregnancies in the process — and now they are going after other forms of reproductive health care.

 The Chamber of Commerce polled 600 prospective West Virginia voters in 2022, after Roe fell but before the state passed its abortion ban. Respondents were surprisingly evenly split: 51% called themselves “pro-life” while 45% considered themselves “pro-choice.” Of all respondents, 45% thought abortion should be legal, at minimum, through the first 15 weeks; an additional 39% thought it should be legal with specific exceptions. Even among Republicans, only 19% thought abortion should be totally banned.

In other words, voters’ stances on protection for abortion are shifting, but our lawmakers represent the most extreme minority position, using the 2018 amendment to justify their actions.

Since circumstances and public opinion have changed dramatically since 2018, West Virginians should get another chance to vote on reproductive rights. At the very least, voters should be given the opportunity to repeal the 2018 amendment, if not replace it with language codifying access to abortion.

Maybe a repeal or replacement would fail; maybe it would pass. But we’ll never know if lawmakers won’t put the issue on the ballot.