The Pennsylvania Senate passed a constitutional amendment proposal Friday that, if enacted, would ensure the state constitution does not grant rights to abortions.
The passage doesn’t have any immediate effect on the state’s abortion laws.
The process for this amendment started late Thursday night, when Republicans proposed the change with even stricter language than what was passed on Friday. That started alarm bells for Democrats and reproductive rights advocates, and a social media storm followed.
The bill passed 28-22, mostly along partisan lines with Republicans in favor and Democrats opposed.
Confusion followed on what the bill did immediately and what it could do in the future.
The bill’s passage in the state Senate doesn’t change current Pennsylvania abortion laws. For the amendment to be added to the state constitution, it would require passage in the state House this year, passage again in both chambers in the next legislative cycle in 2023-24 and then it would become a statewide ballot question. Voters would have to approve that before the constitution would be amended.
If approved by voters, the state constitution would say “this Constitution does not grant the right to taxpayer-funded abortion or any other right relating to abortion.”
The amendment also would change how the lieutenant governor is elected and require voters to present identification when casting ballots.
Democrats and Republicans diverge on how the proposed amendment could impact abortion rights in Pennsylvania. While the U.S. Supreme Court recently overturned Roe v. Wade, Pennsylvania still allows abortions up to 24 weeks into pregnancy.
Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Hempfield, said if the amendment passes it won’t change anything about Pennsylvania’s existing abortion laws and she said a statewide ballot question could go either way.
“Presently, there is not right to an abortion. It’s legal, but it’s not a right,” Ward said. “The amendment just puts (into the constitution) that it isn’t a right and that taxpayers aren’t mandated to foot the bill for an abortion.”
State Sen. Lindsey Williams, D-West View, said this is a big first step by Republican lawmakers to ban abortion in Pennsylvania. She said that Republicans have repeatedly passed abortion restriction bills that have been vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, and this amendment is an attempt to circumvent the governor’s veto pen.
“What they are doing is taking away the rights of women to choose an abortion,” Williams said.
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Women’s Law Project co-interim director Amal Bass said the even if the amendment became law, it wouldn’t immediate outlaw abortions in the state and legislators would still need to introduce and pass abortion bans in the state legislature. But she said it could give local prosecutors more leeway in charging people who receive abortions, even before bans are potentially passed.
In the long run, Bass said it would embolden lawmakers who want to pass abortion bans. She said that Republicans have already attempted to pass abortion restrictions this year, with some introducing a heartbeat bill that would effectively ban abortions past six weeks of pregnancy if enacted.
Bass said she thinks the amendment is an attempt to ensure that any abortion bans are harder to challenge in the courts.
There is litigation in front of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court now that seeks to affirm abortion rights in the state constitution. The state Supreme Court has a liberal 5-2 majority that has drawn criticism from conservative lawmakers over the years in decisions regarding elections and gerrymandering.
Ward said the amendement is about the legislature and the governor encacting laws, instead of the state Supreme Court.
Bass acknowledged that Republican legislators have used the abortion litigation in front of the state Supreme Court as justification for their amendment, but said anti-abortion legislators would have likely attempted to pass the amendment anyway, citing that conservatives in other states have already amendend their constitutions to strip them of abortion rights.
Bass said that even with the overturning of Roe v. Wade and the abortion amendment moving through the legislature, abortion is still legal in Pennsylvania. But that could change if the amendment is approved by voters and Republicans maintain control of the state legislature and pass abortion bans.
She said it’s possible this amendment could move quickly enough through the legislature that voters face a ballot question in spring of next year.
“The difference now is that starting in 2023, things could change,” Bass said.