Gender Divide Marks States' Abortion Debate

'I'm tired of older, rich white men deciding our fate,' one demonstrator says
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Sep 25, 2022 2:45 PM CDT
In GOP States, Men Debate Abortion Law as Women Protest
West Virginia state senators debate a sweeping bill to ban abortion with few exceptions on the Senate floor in Charleston on Sept. 13, as onlookers watch from the gallery.   (AP Photo/Leah Willingham)

Outside the West Virginia Legislature's chambers, the marble foyer was packed with young women in T-shirts, ripped jeans, and gym shorts holding signs with uteruses drawn in colored marker. "Bans off our bodies," the signs said. "Abortion is essential." Inside, a group of lawmakers, almost all of them men, sat at desks in pressed suits, trying to talk over protesters' chants carrying through the heavy wooden doors. A stark gender divide has emerged in debates in Republican-run states including West Virginia, Indiana, and South Carolina since the US Supreme Court’s June decision ending constitutional protections for abortion. As male-dominated legislatures worked to approve bans, often with support of the few Republican women holding office, protesters were more likely to be women.

The contrast wasn’t lost on West Virginia Sen. Owens Brown, the only Black lawmaker in the Republican-dominated Senate, who raised the issue to lawmakers before they passed a bill banning abortion at all stages of pregnancy last week. "When I look around the room, what do I see? A bunch of middle-aged and some elderly men. Also, middle-income men," the Democrat said during a final debate in which only men voiced opinions. In the hallway, he said, "You see young women, and we're here making a decision for all these young women because you're never going to have to ever face this issue yourself." In all three states, lawmakers opposing abortion bans have pointed to the gender divide. In West Virginia, 18 of 134 lawmakers are women; 13 of them, all Republicans, voted for the near-total abortion ban. In Indiana, 35 of 150 legislators are women; 14 voted for its bill. In South Carolina, 29 of 124 legislators are women; seven voted for bans.

"I am incredibly grateful to the men in my caucus, who were not afraid to stand up for life," said Republican Del. Kayla Kessinger, one of the West Virginia ban's biggest supporters. "They have just as much of a right to have an opinion on this as anyone else." The gender gap was hard to miss as protesters descended on the West Virginia Capitol starting in July, when lawmakers took up abortion. During a public hearing, dozens of women were given 45 seconds each to speak; several who went longer were escorted out by security. This past week, at least one woman was arrested and another dragged out of the 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 by a white male lawmaker describing how society should view mothers. Motherhood is a privilege, it said, and shouldn't be treated as "a mere option."

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The resolution—which said those with power over women "convince them to perform acts against their conscience"—didn’t sit well with Roni Jones, a mother from a Charleston suburb. "I'm tired of older, rich white men deciding our fate," she said, her voice hoarse from protesting. "They 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 exemptions for medical emergencies and for rape and incest, those apply only early in pregnancy—and she worries doctors will fear losing their license if they make a close call. Her daughter, Catherine Jones, 25, said none of these decisions should be up to men, who will never experience pregnancy, childbirth, or a miscarriage: “How can they truly empathize?"

(More anti-abortion laws stories.)

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