Abortion rights constitutional amendment clears the Pa. General Assembly

In the nascent post Roe v. Wade era, Pennsylvania emerged as one of a handful of sanctuary states where women could go for abortion services, and indeed, where abortion law was protected.

That all seemingly changed on Friday as the Republican-led General Assembly took a significant step widely seen by critics as a pathway to erode or ban abortion rights in Pennsylvania.

Republican lawmakers first in the Senate, followed by the House, gave their stamp of approval to a constitutional amendment that seeks to add language to that document to state that it imparts no guarantees to abortion rights nor the public funding of abortions.

The amendment is largely a response to a lawsuit before the state Supreme Court that seeks to lift a ban on abortions funded by Medicaid or state public health care coverage.

On Friday evening, just hours after the Senate advanced the measure to the lower chamber, the House approved the constitutional amendment by a 107-92 vote.

In addition to the abortion issue, the bill package contains amendments regarding voter ID law and the manner in which lieutenant governors are elected.

The measure drew impassioned rebuttals from Democrats.

Rep. Matthew Bradford, D-Montgomery County, assailed Republicans for refusing to have intellectual honesty and integrity in admitting what the end game was. He said the measure paves the path to banning abortions.

“This is not some theoretical high school stuff,” he said. “It’s disingenuous to describe it as such. This is the pathway that the majority has been on for a decade to end safe, legal abortions in Pennsylvania.”

Rep. Melissa Shusterman, D-Chester County, excoriated the fact that the measure would insert language banning all abortion services.

“This takes away the individual liberties of a woman’s right to fulfill her life…my right to control my life,” she said. “And allows for political and religious leaders to insert their radical, uniformed beliefs into doctors’s office.”

She warned Republicans that by voting in favor of it, they were turning their backs on the women and girls in their families.

“It is cruel and unusual punishment….how many women must die,” Shusterman said.

On the other side of the political aisle, Republicans argued that the measure did nothing to erode abortion law, but rather allowed voters to settle the issue once and for all.

Rep. Barbara Gleim, R-Carlisle, said it was what her constituents wanted.

“I come from a district that is a pro-life district,” she said. “The majority of my constituents do not want to pay for someone else’s abortion. The majority do want to have a saying on all constitutional amendments in this bill.”

Rep. Valerie Gaydos, R-Allegheny County, objected to what she said were mischaracterizations of the measure.

“This bill does nothing more than take the vote to voters,” she said. “It is the ultimate form of democracy …we are letting the people decide.”

Outside of the House chamber a small group of protesters held posters with abortion rights messages and chanted “shame, shame, shame,” which echoed across the largely empty Capitol complex.

The constitutional amendment would require voters to show identification when voting; and it would open the way for gubernatorial candidates to choose their own running mates instead of voters electing him or her.

The proposed amendment would not require the governor to support the measure, if approved by voters.

The amendment must pass both chambers of the Legislature in two consecutive legislative sessions. After that, they must be advertised to the public before the next election.

The bill is in its first two-year session so must be advertised three months ahead of the Nov. 8 election if the Republican majority wants to get it to voters during the 2023-24 session that starts in January. The earliest the proposal could go before voters would be the May 16, 2023 primary.

The measure underscores efforts by dozens of states to restrict, even ban, abortions in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson that two weeks ago overturned Roe v. Wade. In its decision, the high court handed states the ability to determine abortion rights in their states.

Pennsylvania is one of 16 states and the District of Columbia that have laws that protect the right to abortion. Nine states have now banned abortion in the wake of the Roe v. Wade overturn and 22 states have laws that could be used to restrict the legal status of abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute, an abortion rights advocacy group.

Earlier in the day, amendment sponsor Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair County, insisted that the amendment would not ban abortions.

“This amendment changes nothing,” she said. “It doesn’t change the law and it does not affect any abortion law or regulation currently on the books. It simply maintains the status quo.”

Ward said her legislation does not say anything about medical procedures commonly used, for instance, to treat women who have had ectopic pregnancies or miscarriages.

Ward said women would still be allowed to have an abortion up to up to the 24th week of pregnancy as guaranteed by state’s Abortion Control Act.

“Nothing would prohibit that,” she said.

Ward said her amendment would ensure that the General Assembly, not the courts, have a say in determining the laws that cover abortion.

“Without this amendment the courts would be able to go against the will of the people,” Ward said. “This is wrong and this is not how democracy works. The people of Pennsylvania should have a say in issues they feel strongly about.”

Abortion rights opponents, in the meantime, praised the General Assembly for advancing the measure.

Michael Geer, president of Pennsylvania Family Institute, a conservative advocacy group, reiterated assurances from the bill’s sponsor that it would ultimately change nothing in the law.

“Pennsylvanians agree that taxpayers should not be forced to pay for the taking of a human life through abortion,” he said. “Just as the U.S. Supreme Court in the overturn of Roe and Casey ruled that the authority to craft abortion policies should be given ‘to the people and their elected representatives,’ this amendment preserves the rights of the people through their representatives to make these decisions rather than Pennsylvania’s courts.”

The constitutional amendment drew the ire of Planned Parenthood of Pennsylvania executive director Signe Espinoza, who said the measure erodes abortion rights, calling it “shameful, undemocratic and wrong.”

Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, excoriated Pennsylvania Republicans for “falling in line with extremists across the country.”

“In the face of these dangerous anti-abortion measures moving across the country, it is clearer than ever that state legislatures are the last line of defense for these fundamental rights,” she said. “Republicans will stop at nothing to attack abortion rights and make life worse for working Americans, and Democrats are laser focused on winning in the states to put an end to their extremism.”

Rep. Donna Bullock, chair of House Black Caucus, assailed the measure saying it puts the lives of Black women at risk. Black women in particular she said would be impacted by any limits to abortion rights and would be further disenfranchise by it.

“We can’t afford to stand down,” she said.

In their 2019 lawsuit, abortion care providers across Pennsylvania argue that the state’s Medicaid abortion coverage ban violates the Equal Rights Amendment and equal protection provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Individuals who are eligible for or who are on Pennsylvania’s Medical Assistance Program or Medicaid are blocked from using their coverage to pay for abortion services.

Plaintiffs seek a court order recognizing abortion as a fundamental right, and restoring Medicaid coverage of abortion.

Abortion rights opponents accuse the abortion industry with attempting to circumvent the legislative process, tasking the courts instead with bolstering abortion rights.

“This amendment does not ban abortion,” said Sen. Kim Ward. “I just want to be clear about that. I know folks are afraid that’s what is going to happen but this amendment does not change current law… It is power back to the Legislature and away from the court.”

Sen. Kristin Phillips Hill, R-York County, called the amendment “a mechanism” that gives the decision power back to state residents.

“It’s time we actually hear from the people of Pennsylvania, our constituents and what they want on this issue,” she said. “This legislation maintains the status quo. The abortion law in the Commonwealth will remain completely unchanged.”

Democratic lawmakers assailed the measure as a veiled attempt to erode abortion rights in Pennsylvania.

“Women should have the right to control what happens to their body,” said Sen. Anthony Williams of Philadelphia. “Men have that control. Women should have that control as well.”

“This amendment is a guaranteed death sentence for so many people,” said Sen. Amanda Cappelletti of Montgomery County. She said the amendment would also strike at the religious freedoms of Jewish people, whose faith guarantees the right to abortion care for women.

“This is an awful, awful amendment,” Cappelletti said.

Judith Schwank of Berks County warned that the chamber was “making a huge mistake” to think that “people, particularly women are going to lie down and let this happen to them.”

Schwank said the amendment has a clear “end game in sight” and no amount of reassurances would convince objectors to the amendment that it does not ultimately want to strike down abortion rights.

“With this amendment a line has been drawn to the women and men who are shocked, dismayed, outraged that something like this could happen in our Commonwealth,” she said. “Let me tell you something. Forget your outrage. Turn that into action…an election is coming.”

The General Assembly’s vote on the constitutional amendment played out on a that saw President Joe Biden sign an executive order directing health officials to expand access to abortion pills, strengthen enforcement of Obamacare’s birth control coverage mandate and ready pro bono lawyers to help defend people criminally charged for seeking or providing the procedure.

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