Kessler asks for abortion ban session

WHEELING – West Virginia Senate President Jeff Kessler wants Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to call legislators into a special session to rework the late-term abortion ban Tomblin vetoed in March.

His request comes as a petition is circulating among legislators to call themselves into session, which they may do if three-fifths of both houses agree. Kessler believes proponents have enough signatures in the Senate and are just a few short in the House.

A bill that would have banned most abortions more than 20 weeks into pregnancy – the point at which some research shows a fetus is capable of feeling pain – overwhelmingly passed both houses during this year’s special session. Tomblin vetoed the measure, citing advice the law wouldn’t stand up to judicial scrutiny as well as concerns it would restrict physician-patient relationships, but later said he would consider working with lawmakers to craft a new version.

“I’m convinced that we are going to have a pain-capable (abortion) bill,” Kessler, D-Glen Dale, said. “We’re going to have one, even by the governor’s own statement. … I think most of us believe it’s the right thing to do. Let’s get in the room, and get it done.”

If the governor calls for a special session, the Legislature is limited to considering legislation specifically listed in the governor’s proclamation – but Kessler said there are no such restrictions if the Legislature calls itself into session, potentially opening the door for a long and costly proceeding.

“It becomes a no-holds-barred, open-ended session of the Legislature. It’s not even limited to being a 60-day session like our normal session of the Legislature. … I think it’s ill-advised to do that,” Kessler said.

The daily cost to taxpayers of a session would be at least $20,100, at $150 per legislator per day. Each member can also claim up to either $55 or $131 per day for food, travel and lodging depending on whether they live within 50 miles of Charleston.

Kessler said it would only take one to three days to resolve the issue, something that could be done at no additional expense to taxpayers during upcoming interim meetings in the summer during which the lawmakers will receive pay anyway.

With Republicans taking aim at controlling the House of Delegates for the first time since 1930, Kessler believes some GOP members are using Tomblin’s veto to attack Democrats. That’s another reason he would like to see the issue resolved sooner rather than later.

“It’ll be a political football issue between now and November, and I think that’s counterproductive,” he said.

Although the introduced version of the bill would have made it a felony punishable by one to five years in prison for a doctor to perform an abortion after 20 weeks, Kessler pointed out the final bill sent to the governor softened the penalty to a fine with no possibility for jail time.

He said the bill contained exemptions for pregnancies threatening a mother’s life or significantly impairing her health, and under no circumstances would it have subjected a woman obtaining an abortion to criminal charges.

“I thought we had a relatively comprehensive and fair bill. I think some of the reports that have been generated are misleading,” Kessler said.