CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- You may be surprised to learn that West Virginia, unlike other Appalachian Bible Belt states, actually gives extra protection to women and girls seeking to avoid or end pregnancies.
That fact was underscored by two former Charleston crusaders, Catholic nuns Barbara Ferraro and Pat Hussey, at a statewide gathering on the 40th anniversary of the historic Roe v. Wade Supreme Court ruling that gave American women a right to choose.
Sharing a podium, the two pointed out that West Virginia law requires all health insurance plans that cover prescriptions to also provide birth control to women who want it. This partly matches a controversial provision in President Obama's national health reform, which is being fought by some conservative churchmen who think birth control is evil.
Also, while right-wingers in Washington forbid using federal funds to halt gestation, West Virginia is among 17 states using local money for Medicaid abortions for poor women. This stems from a 1993 ruling by the state Supreme Court, led by Justice Peggy Workman, that low-income women deserve the same protection as more affluent women.
"West Virginia is a beacon of hope," the nuns said. "It is not among the 26 states listed as hostile to reproductive rights." In the latest ranking by a women's rights group, "West Virginia received a B, while all surrounding states -- Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia -- received an F," they added.
With its woman-friendly policies, West Virginia has enjoyed a remarkable drop in abortions -- from about 6,000 a year in the 1970s to about 2,000 in 2009. Now the state's rate is much lower than the U.S. average.
Fundamentalist groups endlessly pressure the state Legislature to enact obstacles to hinder or humiliate desperate girls and women who try to halt pregnancies. Sometimes they succeed, imposing tough requirements on pregnant females and doctors.
Ferraro and Hussey attributed West Virginia's superior standing to tireless struggling by women's groups such as WV FREE, which hosted the Roe anniversary assembly.
"We need to organize," the nuns said. "If this past election cycle taught us anything, it is that organized people who are invested in the outcomes can defeat organized money. Organized people in West Virginia can defeat organized money."
Hussey and Ferraro are veterans of social crusading. For decades, they operated Charleston's Covenant House helping the homeless. Then they signed a pro-choice newspaper ad that caused the Catholic Church to denounce them -- but they kept on struggling. They recorded their battle in a 1990 book, No Turning Back. Now they're retired in Maine.
Their message -- fight for causes you believe in -- should boost all West Virginians who strive to improve people's rights and lives.