“Vote them out. Vote them out,” activists chanted outside of lawmakers’ offices in West Virginia’s capital in late July, as senators considered a bill that would outlaw abortion in West Virginia. One activist held a sign labeled “Don’t Tread on Me” below a rattlesnake wrapped around itself, forming a uterus. Another had a white, pink and blue striped sign, the colors of the transgender flag, stating, “Abortion is not just a women’s issue.”
The West Virginia Republican Party failed to pass an abortion ban during a July special session called by Gov. Jim Justice, in part because of activist efforts in the state legislature. Reproductive justice activists made themselves heard by testifying during a public hearing and protesting at the capital for over 11 hours.
Activists are adamant that their actions, which included speaking at a public hearing, emailing legislators, organizing sit-ins, and packing and protesting at the capital have delayed the vote, leaving abortion legal for an anticipated few weeks.
“I don’t care what anyone says. If we weren’t here, this wouldn’t have happened. Do not tell me protest and emails to legislators do not work. I just saw it,” tweeted Jamie Miller, an abortion escort and executive assistant at ACLU-WV.
Southern Abortion Rights After the Roe Reversal
The legal landscape of abortion rights in West Virginia has been changing rapidly since the reversal of Roe v. Wade in late June. Immediately after the Supreme Court’s opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson became public, the only West Virginia clinic offering abortion procedures halted services because it was uncertain if the state’s on-the-books abortion ban had automatically gone into effect.
After the reversal of Roe, over half of the country either immediately initiated their on-the-books trigger bans and pre-Roe abortion bans, or otherwise began enforcing other hostile limitations on individuals’ access to abortion.
The elimination of the federal protection to abortion procedures led to an immediate nationwide mourning. “There’s this gut-wrenching feeling of like ‘I no longer fully have control over my body and what my choices are if I decide to have children or not,” said Rebecca Kamp, a nonbinary reproductive justice activist who lives in Martinsburg, West Virginia. “We keep us safe, the government does not.”
While most media attention has focused on protests in urban areas like New York and Washington, D.C., those most effected by the fall of Roe reside in states in the Midwest, Appalachia and the South. Black women and queer people of color in the South, in particular, will disproportionately suffer from the financial and health risks associated with abortion bans.
If West Virginia had passed the abortion ban bill, it would have been the first state to do so. However, since the stalling of the bill on August 5, Indiana became the first post-Roe to sign legislation into law that will ban most abortion in the state.
Despite that, reproductive justice organizers refuse to give up. According to Peregrine Lloyd, a queer activist in Huntington, West Virginia. “There’s grit, there’s hope, there’s righteous anger. Some people are hopeless one day and the next they’re proclaiming their solemn duty to fight for the rest of their lives.”
Why National Groups Shouldn’t Write West Virginia Off
Reproductive justice activists like Ixya Vega, a community organizer at Planned Parenthood of South Atlantic West Virginia, feels like national reproductive justice groups see West Virginia as a lost cause. “I’m convinced national organizations … leave their regional groups out to dry, but like West Virginia is worth fighting for,” Vega tweeted. “We are worthy of attention that highlights great work and us trying.”
This community power building is reflected in the work of Holler Health Justice, or HHJ, a West Virginia reproductive justice and harm reduction organization that builds power in Appalachia with communities most disproportionately affected by health inequities, including BIPOC, LGBTQIA+ folk, those in rural areas and those with low income. HHJ has continued to offer abortion funding, practical support and free emergency contraception, despite the continually changing legal landscape in West Virginia.
“It’s the Appalachian way,” Lloyd said, describing the Appalachian organizing model reproductive justice activists have used to respond to this crisis. “It’s more word-of-mouth, people coming together on a low-key basis and just trying to build community informally.”
Packing the Capital to Fight an Abortion Ban
Activists packed the capital in Charlestown in late July for the #BansOffOurBodies rally to voice their dissent at a public hearing hosted by the House. Speakers who were pro-abortion allegedly had their mics cut and received shorter speaking time than those who were anti-abortion. Activists, including Women’s Health Center Director Katie Quinonez, were escorted out of chambers for shouting their abortion stories.
Zac Morton, a minister serving the First Presbyterian church in Morgantown called for national attention to the number of activists who spoke at the hearing. “Hey national organizers,” Morton said, “I hope you’re paying attention to how many West Virginians have turned up to speak out in opposition to the #AbortionBan being proposed during this special session. It’s at least two to one.”
Appalachian Abortion Access as a Queer Issue
Banning abortion is a queer issue and will disproportionately effect queer and trans people. West Virginia has the highest percentage of trans youth in the county, and transgender people in West Virginia have historically experienced obstacles when accessing health care in general.
Reproductive justice activists who protested at the capital in late July were conscious that abortion is not just a women’s issue, but will affect trans men, nonbinary people and other queer folks.
Many of those who protested at the capital also identify as queer themselves and faced discrimination by lawmakers when sharing their abortion stories at the public hearing.
Ash Orr, a trans Appalachian organizer and policy outreach coordinator who uses they/he pronouns, was repeatedly misgendered by a moderator during the public hearing, despite sharing their pronouns and writing their pronouns on the sign up sheet next to his name. Orr had their mic cut off and was escorted off the floor. Delegates allegedly laughed at them and called him an “abomination.”
Orr’s statement, which included their experience as a childhood rape victim and abortion patient, was later shared fully on the Senate floor by Sen. Shelley Moore Capoto. Orr emailed Sen. Mike Azinger after their full statement was shared, writing that “Given your statements on the floor, it is evident that you neither care for children or adults who are the victims of rape.” Azinger responded via email four hours later, saying, “The arrogance of some people: Why do you assume I know about your pathetic statement Capito read on the floor? You were born a female and always — always — will be a female. And you are the one who does not care about the victims of rape: If they get pregnant, you want them to kill their baby, which they’ll live with for the rest of their life.”
Despite the egregious treatment Orr received from West Virginia’s legislature, they refuse to stop fighting for reproductive justice. “For the rest of my days,” Orr tweeted, “I will never stop fighting for my community, for Queer joy, for bodily autonomy, or for better days. I am exhausted, but I’m still standing.”
Support Grows for a Ballot Initiative
Activists’ success in stalling the passage of an abortion ban — and their adamant dedication to abortion rights in West Virginia — have led Democratic lawmakers to suggest that abortion rights should be voted on via a ballot measure. Despite Senate Minority Leader Stephen Baldwin’s statement that the right to an abortion should be voted on by West Virginians themselves, the governor is adamant that this should be decided by the legislature and the attorney general.
While a ballot measure in Kansas earlier this month was rejected, leading activists in West Virginia to potentially support a similar initiative, other activists are reminded of West Virginians voting in 2018, by a slim majority, to approve a constitutional amendment stating “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion.”
While abortion rights are still in limbo, they remain legal in West Virginia for the time being. At the same time, activists are working to raise funds to support the state’s only abortion clinic, which continues to provide abortion care to West Virginians.