CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A pregnant 16-year-old girl panicked when she got a call from the only abortion clinic in West Virginia telling her that her appointment had been canceled and she needed to book one out-of-state.
“She started crying and said, ‘I don’t know what’s going on. Can I give the phone to my mom, so you can explain to her?’” Women’s Health Center of West Virginia Executive Director Katie Quiñonez said Wednesday, the day after state lawmakers passed a ban on abortion at all stages of pregnancy.
Clinic staff had dozens of similar conversations Tuesday night and Wednesday with frantic abortion patients trying to navigate their new reality. Quiñonez said her staff provided them with resources to book appointments outside West Virginia and funding to help with travel and for the procedure.
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The abortion ban has yet to be signed by Republican Gov. Jim Justice, but he is expected to make it law. Quiñonez said the clinic’s lawyer advised them to suspend abortions immediately.
Quiñonez believes the ban is so comprehensive that almost no one will be able to get abortions in West Virginia.
The ban has exemptions for medical emergencies and for rape and incest victims until eight weeks of pregnancy for adults and 14 weeks for children. Victims must report their assault to law enforcement 48 hours before the procedure. Minors can report to the police or a doctor, who then must tell police.
The bill requires abortions to be performed by a physician at a hospital — a provision that at least two Republican lawmakers have said was intended to shut down abortions at the Women’s Health Center, which has provided the procedure since 1976. Providers who perform illegal abortions can face up to 10 years in prison.
Quiñonez said sexual assaults are already underreported because the reporting process is traumatic and people face shame and are not believed by law enforcement and their communities.
“Not to mention, how are minors supposed to report sexual abuse or incest if they’re being victimized by their own parents? How are they supposed to just go to law enforcement to report that?” she said. “As an adult, it’s scary to go to law enforcement. It’s scary to appear in front of a judge, but we’re going to expect teenagers to do it somehow. ”
With the governor’s signature, West Virginia would be the second state after Indiana to approve an abortion ban after the U.S. Supreme Court’s June decision to end the constitutional protection of abortion rights. The ruling ignited intense state-level debates, especially in states controlled by Republicans, about when to impose the ban, whether to carve out exceptions in cases involving rape, incest or the health of the woman giving birth, and how those exceptions should be implemented.
West Virginia is a rural state that has multi-county regions with no hospital. People who do go to hospitals seeking abortions are often turned away, Quiñonez said. Some religiously affiliated hospitals refuse to perform them. The Women’s Health Center had to recruit doctors who travelled from out-of-state to work at the clinic because they couldn’t find any willing physicians in West Virginia.
Quiñonez was present at the Capitol throughout lawmakers’ deliberations Tuesday, listening with protestors outside the chamber doors. At one point, she became overcome with emotion and sat alone in one of the Capitol’s marble stairwells remembering herself at ages 17 and 22 sitting in her bathroom holding a positive pregnancy test.
“Tears just started welling up in my eyes then — it just took me right back there,” said Quiñonez, who has had two abortions in West Virginia, one at the Women’s Health Center. “I was envisioning all of the phone calls that I would be having to make later and how those patients were going to have those same feelings or possibly be in even more dire circumstances.”
She said it’s hard to say how she and her staff are coping. After they finished canceling abortion appointments Wednesday, she sent her staff home.
“I don’t really have a good answer for that question,” she said. “I’m feeling incredibly disgusted and angry with the people who are somehow in power in this state.”
Quiñonez said just because the clinic is shuttering abortion services doesn’t mean it’s going away. It also provides gender-confirming hormone therapy, HIV prevention and treatment and routine gynecological care — cervical exams, cancer screenings and testing and treatment for diseases spread through sex — mostly for low-income patients on Medicaid with nowhere else to go.
“There’s a lot that we don’t know, but the one thing that we do know is that we’re not closing our doors,” she said.
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