Late on Friday, Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin (D) vetoed House Bill 4588, a measure that would have outlawed abortions after 20 weeks in West Virginia. In a statement regarding his decision, the governor explained that the abortion ban would be a “detriment of the health and safety of expectant mothers,” and noted that it violates the constitution.
“I believe there is no greater gift of love than the gift of life,” Gov. Tomblin said. “However, I have vetoed HB 4588 because I am advised, by not only attorneys from the legislature, but through my own legal team that this bill is unconstitutional.”
Under Roe v. Wade, abortion is legal up until the point of viability, which typically occurs around 24 weeks of pregnancy. Twenty-week bans — also often called “fetal pain bans,” since they’re based on the scientifically disputed theory that fetuses can feel pain after that point — seek to narrow that window. It’s an effective method of gradually chipping away at women’s reproductive rights.
Abortion opponents have furthered this incremental strategy in states across the country, capitalizing on the emotional outrage about later abortion procedures to enact 20-week bans in nine states. West Virginia would have represented a particularly significant milestone in this push to limit abortion access. If Tomblin hadn’t vetoed HB 4588, it would have been the first 20-week ban to become law in a Democratic-controlled state — ultimately, allowing the anti-choice community to construe this policy as moderate by pointing to bipartisan support for fetal pain restrictions.
But, as Tomblin indicated, these laws don’t always fare so well in the courts. Twenty-week bans have been blocked from taking effect in Idaho, Georgia, and Arizona. In West Virginia specifically, the legislation was also unpopular with voters, who didn’t want their lawmakers to spend time focusing on passing more abortion restrictions.
“We commend Governor Tomblin for taking a principled stand and vetoing HB 4588, which is an unconstitutional and cruel measure,” Melissa Reed, Planned Parenthood Health Systems’ vice president for public affairs, said in a statement.
“The governor rightly saw this bill as a blatantly unconstitutional restriction on women’s health,” Sara Bird, the president of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, added. “Every pregnancy is different, and we can’t know all of the circumstances a woman is facing. A woman who is planning for a child but develops complications doesn’t need politicians interfering with her decision, nor does any other woman.”
The anti-choice community, on the other hand, is condemning Tomblin’s decision to veto the legislation in light of his personal opposition to abortion. “Another ‘Pro-Life’ Dem Bites the Dust,” the National Review Online laments. The right-wing Susan B. Anthony List is now hoping to put more pressure on U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, the pro-life Democratic lawmaker from West Virginia who recently came out in support of the proposed 20-week ban, to lend his support to national efforts to pass fetal pain laws.