CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) – Outside the chambers of the West Virginia Legislature, the marble foyer was packed with young women in T-shirts, ripped jeans and gym shorts holding signs with uteruses drawn in colored markers.
“Ban our bodies,” the signs said. “Abortion is essential”
Inside, a group of lawmakers, almost all men, sat at desks in pressed suits and did their best to converse over the chants of protesters that filtered through the heavy wooden doors.
A clear gender divide has emerged in debates unfolding in Republican-led states like West Virginia, Indiana and South Carolina after the US Supreme Court’s decision in June to end constitutional protections for abortion. As male-dominated legislatures worked to push bans, often with support from the few Republican women who held office, the protesters tended to be women.
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The contrast didn’t escape West Virginia Senator Owens Brown, the only black lawmaker in the Republican-dominated Senate, who urged lawmakers to look around before passing legislation banning abortions at all stages of pregnancy last week.
“What do I see when I look around the room? A group of middle aged men and some older men. Even middle-income men,” the Democrat said during a final Senate debate in which only men shared opinions. “Look in the hallway. What do you see? You see young women and we are making a decision for all of these young women here because you never have to face this problem yourself.
In all three states, lawmakers fighting abortion bans have pointed to the gender gap and insisted that men should not dictate medical decisions for women. Proponents of the ban say abortion affects not only women, but also children and society as a whole.
“I am incredibly grateful to the men in my group who have not been afraid to stand up for their lives,” Republican Del said. Kayla Kessinger, one of West Virginia’s biggest supporters of Prohibition. “You have as much right to 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 died eight years ago at 21 Years ago the issue of abortion entered the legislature.
The gender gap was hard to miss as protesters descended on the West Virginia Capitol beginning in July, when lawmakers first began allowing abortion. During a public hearing, dozens of women who emerged were each given 45 seconds to speak; Some who walked longer were led out by security forces. In the past week, at least one woman has been arrested and another dragged from the chamber gallery by a group of male officers when she yelled “shame” at lawmakers during a debate.
After the bill passed, the domestic worker read a lengthy resolution tabled by a white male lawmaker describing how society should view mothers. Motherhood is a privilege, it said, and should not be treated as “a mere option”.
“It used to be common wisdom among all participants in the abortion debate that no woman wants an abortion,” the resolution reads. Whoever has power over women “convinces them to act against their conscience”.
Roni Jones, a mother from the Charleston suburb of St. Albans, didn’t like the resolution.
“I’m sick of older, rich white men deciding our destiny,” she said, her voice hoarse from protest. “You have no idea what working-class people go through.”
Jones once had an abortion in the second trimester of a wanted pregnancy because of a medical issue, she said. And while West Virginia’s ban has exceptions for medical emergencies and rape and incest, those only apply early in pregnancy — and she fears doctors will fear losing their licenses if they make a terse call.
Her daughter, Catherine Jones, 25, said none of these decisions should be left to men who will never experience pregnancy, childbirth or miscarriage: “How can they really empathize?”
In West Virginia, 18 out of 134 lawmakers are women — and 13 of them, all Republicans, voted for the near-total ban on abortion. In Indiana, 35 out of 150 legislators are women; 14 voted in favor of the bill. In South Carolina, 29 out of 124 legislators are women; seven voted for bans.
Republican Senator Sue Glick of Indiana supported the anti-abortion legislation. A house version was also suggested by a woman. But it was a male Democrat who pointed out the gender gap — as in West Virginia.
“This is the government, the male-dominated Indiana state government, telling the women of this state, you’re losing your election,” Democratic Indiana Senator Tim Lanane said as the Senate passed his ban. “We told you – Papa State, big state government – will tell you what you’re going to do with your body.”
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Men have invoked wives, daughters, and granddaughters during debates about exceptions to rape and incest. Some said they had to make a decision that would allow them to “sleep at night.”
Female lawmakers in both parties have at times expressed frustration.
“To say it’s hard being a woman in politics is an understatement,” South Carolina Senator Katrina Shealy — the panel’s longest-serving woman — said in the Senate. “To say it’s really hard being a woman in politics in South Carolina is hardly a statement.”
Shealy was one of three Republican senators who opposed attempts to remove exceptions for rape and incest.
“Yes, I am pro-life,” she said. “I’m also for the life of the mother, the life that she has with her children already born.”
South Carolina senators narrowly rejected a ban on almost all abortions this month. However, Republican lawmakers plan to keep trying to enact new restrictions. In West Virginia and Indiana, the enacted bans were signed into law, although a judge temporarily blocked enforcement of Indiana’s ban. The state quickly appealed.
In West Virginia, Democrat Del. Kayla Young pointed out the lack of legal representation not only for women but also for people of color – and these communities will be hardest hit by the ban, she said.
“We’ll never have to deal with that because we’re incredibly privileged people,” she said. “We make decisions about other people, and we shouldn’t do that. If it’s your religious belief, if it’s your moral belief, then great for you. But take it from me, get it out of my body, get it out of my womb.”
The Democrat Del. Danielle Walker – the only black woman in the legislature – has admitted to performing an abortion. Walker often joined the protesters between sessions and led chants.
“Who do you think you are to tell me what to do with my body, with my vagina, with my uterus, with my ovaries?” she said to the crowd before walking into the chambers of the House of Representatives to 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 requiring rape and incest victims who want abortions to report abuse to the police. Though she wasn’t involved in creating the final version, she said her male colleagues shared her work and solicited input.
Rucker said she felt she was executing voters’ wishes. But opponents of abortion restrictions say that can only be known by a nationwide vote. In 2018, 52 percent of voters approved a constitutional amendment that said nothing in the state constitution “secures or protects the right to abortion or requires funding for abortion.”
No vote has taken place in West Virginia since then. After the Supreme Court decision, only Kansas voters had a chance to speak out on abortion. The traditionally conservative state voted to enshrine the procedure as a right in the state constitution, helped by an unprecedented surge in registered women voters.
A proposal by West Virginia Democrats to put the abortion issue to voters was rejected by Republicans on the day the ban was passed. At least four states — California, Kentucky, Michigan and Vermont — could vote on abortion access in November.
On the day that West Virginia’s law passed, Rucker and other female legislators let their male counterparts speak — she felt she had already had her say.
“I had no reason to delay action to save the babies when West Virginia voters had already spoken out,” she said. “The 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 corps members of the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative.