CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Outside the chambers of the West Virginia Legislative Assembly, the marble lobby was filled with young women in T-shirts, ripped jeans and athletic shorts holding signs with wombs drawn with color marker.
“Prohibitions of our bodies”, said the signs. “Abortion is essential.”
Inside, a group of lawmakers, almost all men, sat at desks in pressed suits, doing their best to speak despite the chants of protesters coming through the heavy wooden doors.
A deep gender divide has emerged in debates unfolding in Republican-led states including West Virginia, Indiana and South Carolina following the US Supreme Court ruling. United in June to end constitutional abortion protections. As male-dominated legislatures strove to push through bans, often with the support of the few Republican women in office, protesters were more likely to be women.
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The contrast was not lost on West Virginia Sen. Owens Brown, the only black lawmaker in the Republican-dominated Senate, who asked lawmakers to look around before passing a bill banning the abortion at all stages of pregnancy last week.
“When I look around me in the room, what do I see? A group of middle aged men and a few older men. Also, middle-income men,” the Democrat said during a final Senate debate in which only men shared their opinions. “Look in the hallway. What do you see? You see young women, and we are here to make a decision for all of these young women because you will never have to face this problem yourself.
In all three states, lawmakers fighting the abortion ban have pointed to the gender divide, insisting that men should not dictate medical decisions to women. Advocates of the ban say abortion not only affects women, but also children and society as a whole.
“I am incredibly grateful to the men in my caucus, who were not afraid to fight for their lives,” said Republican Kayla Kessinger, one of West Virginia’s biggest supporters of the ban. “They have as much right to have an opinion on this as anyone else.
“I wish the left would stop trying to silence conservative women who are pro-life and believe that empowering women doesn’t require us to kill our children,” said Kessinger, who joined the legislature there. is eight years old, at 21, running. the issue of abortion.
The gender gap was hard to miss as protesters descended on the West Virginia Capitol from July, when lawmakers began aborting. At a public hearing, dozens of women who came forward were given 45 seconds each to speak; several who went longer were escorted out by security. Last week, at least one woman was arrested and another dragged from the chamber gallery by a group of male officers when she shouted “shame” at lawmakers during a debate.
After the bill passed, the House Clerk read a lengthy resolution introduced by a white male legislator outlining how society should view mothers. Motherhood is a privilege, he said, and should not be treated as “just an option”.
“It was once common wisdom among all participants in the abortion debate that no woman wants an abortion,” the resolution states. Those who have power over women “convince them to perform acts against their conscience”.
The resolution did not sit well with Roni Jones, a mother from the Charleston suburb of St. Albans.
“I’m sick of rich, older white men deciding our fate,” she said, her voice hoarse from protesting. “They have no idea what working class people are going through.”
Jones once had an abortion during the second trimester of a wanted pregnancy due to a medical condition, she said. And while West Virginia’s ban provides exemptions for medical emergencies and for rape and incest, these only apply in early pregnancy – and she fears doctors will fear lose their license if they make a close call.
Her daughter, Catherine Jones, 25, said none of those decisions should be up to men, who will never experience pregnancy, childbirth or miscarriage: “How can they really empathize? “
In West Virginia, 18 of 134 lawmakers are women – and 13 of them, all Republicans, voted for a near total ban on abortion. In Indiana, 35 of 150 legislators are women; 14 voted for the bill there. In South Carolina, 29 of 124 legislators are women; seven voted for the bans.
Republican Indiana Senator Sue Glick sponsored the abortion ban that became law. A House version was also proposed by a woman. But it was a Democratic man who pointed to the gender divide — like in West Virginia.
“This is the government, the male-dominated government of the state of Indiana, telling the women of this state, you lose your choice,” Indiana Democratic Sen. Tim Lanane said when the Senate enacted its ban. “We told you – the daddy state, the big state government – is going to tell you what to do with your body.”
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Men have invoked wives, daughters and granddaughters in debates over rape and incest exemptions. Several said they had to make a decision that allowed them to “sleep at night”.
Women legislators from both parties have at times expressed frustration.
“To say it’s hard to be a woman in politics is an understatement,” South Carolina Sen. Katrina Shealy, the body’s longest-serving woman, told the Senate. “To say that it’s really hard to be a woman in politics in South Carolina is not a statement at all.”
Shealy was one of three Republican senators who opposed an effort to remove the rape and incest exceptions.
“Yes, I’m pro-life,” she said. “I’m also pro-life for the mother, the life she has with her children who are already born.”
South Carolina senators narrowly rejected a ban on nearly all abortions this month. But Republican lawmakers plan to keep trying to enact new restrictions. In West Virginia and Indiana, the enacted bans were enacted, although a judge temporarily blocked enforcement of Indiana’s ban. The state quickly appealed.
In West Virginia, Democrat Kayla Young noted the lack of legislative representation for not only women but also people of color — and those communities will be most affected by the ban, she said.
“We will never have to deal with this because we are incredibly privileged people,” she said. “We make decisions about other people, and we shouldn’t do that. If that’s your religious belief, if that’s your moral belief, that’s fine for you. But get it away from me, get it away from my body, get it away from my womb.
Democratic Congresswoman Danielle Walker – the only black woman in the Legislative Assembly – has admitted to having an abortion. Walker often joined protesters between floor sessions, leading chants.
“Who are you to tell me what to do with my body, my vagina, my uterus, my ovaries? she said in the middle of the crowd before entering the chambers of the House to vote against the bill.
Other lawmakers say the ban reflects what West Virginians want. Republican Senator Patricia Rucker supported the measure and spoke out in debates about ensuring that rape and incest victims who want abortions must report the assaults to the police. Although she was not involved in writing the final version, she said her male colleagues were sharing their work and soliciting feedback.
Rucker said she felt she was carrying out voters’ wishes. But opponents of restricting abortion say that can only be known by a statewide vote. In 2018, 52% of voters approved a constitutional amendment declaring that nothing in the state constitution “guarantees or protects the right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion.”
No votes have been taken in West Virginia since. Following the Supreme Court’s ruling, only Kansas voters were given the opportunity to vote on abortion. The traditionally conservative state voted to affirm the procedure as a right in the state constitution, with support from an unprecedented increase in the number of registered female voters.
A proposal by West Virginia House Democrats to ask voters about abortion was voted down by Republicans the day the ban was passed. At least four states – California, Kentucky, Michigan and Vermont – could vote in November on abortion access.
On the day the West Virginia bill passed, Rucker and other female legislators let her male colleagues do the talking — she felt she had already had her say.
“I felt no reason to delay action to save the babies when voters in West Virginia have already spoken,” she said. “Voters knew when they elected me that I was 100% pro-life.”
AP reporters James Pollard and Jeffrey Collins in South Carolina and Arleigh Rodgers and Rick Callahan in Indiana contributed to this report. Pollard and Rodgers are members of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative.