‘Voice of the unborn,’ or politics at work? An abortion bill is flying through Harrisburg

Pro-choice advocates call it the strictest abortion bill in the country.

Pennsylvania’s legislature that’s been nothing short of dysfunctional is this week moving with blinding speed to pass an abortion bill that doctors don’t like, the governor has promised to veto and pro-choice advocates decry as the strictest of its kind in the country.

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that it could become law, overcoming that veto, because this is Pennsylvania. And we’re in an election year. Here’s a look at what’s at stake and why some say the bill is nothing more than politics at work…

What the bill actually does and where it comes from

Titled the “Pain Capable/ Dismemberment Pro-Life Legislation,” the bill was introduced by Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, on Friday and has two main goals:

  1. The bill would amend Pennsylvania’s current Abortion Control Act to change the current 24-week cutoff for abortions to 20 weeks, including in cases of rape and incest. The move cites studies often touted by pro-life organizations that conclude fetuses can begin to feel pain at 20 weeks.
  2. It would make a medically accepted technique called “dilation and evacuation” illegal and penalize doctors for performing it. The method is considered to be the safest for the mother if an abortion is taking place in the second trimester and includes doctors using forceps to remove a fetus. Language in the bill calls the dilation and evacuation method “dismemberment abortion.”

According to the state, 1,550 dilation and evacuation abortions were performed in 2014 and make up less than 5 percent of all abortions performed. Forty percent of all dilation and evacuation abortions occurred in the first trimester. Meanwhile, just 328 abortions occurred after 20 weeks statewide, according to the state Department of Health. (And about half of all 32,000 abortions performed in 2014 statewide took place in Philadelphia.)

“At 20 weeks’ gestation, there is no denying it’s a child,” Rapp said during a hearing on the measure. “And we are trying to be the voice of that unborn child.”

Pro-choice advocates disagree and have launched statewide campaigns against Rapp’s bill, claiming it isn’t based in science.

“This is the most restrictive abortion law in the country,” Selina Winchester, a spokeswoman for Planned Parenthood Keystone, told The York Daily Record. “It infringes on a woman’s right to have an abortion.”

The bill is modeled after legislation that’s been drafted and supported by the National Right to Life Committee, which considers its “pain capable” legislation to be among its largest policy priorities.

How the bill got to this point

The bill is ready to go straight to the House floor; it was introduced late Friday afternoon. You may be wondering: Wait a second.

This is the same legislature that has taken more than a year to pass a medical marijuana bill with widespread public support; the same legislature that has failed to come to consensus on pension reform or liquor privatization or education funding; the same men and women who took nine months to pass a budget with a governor they didn’t see eye-to-eye with.

But a bill restricting abortion that has more than 100 co-sponsors was referred to the House Health Committee shortly after being introduced and was approved by a 16-10 margin Monday — it could hit the House floor as early as today. That means it could be approved and moved to the Senate early next week. Some have said the move is election year politicking.

With a GOP-controlled legislature courting an increasingly conservative base heading into the April 26 primary, political observers bet it’ll make it to Gov. Tom Wolf’s office; Wolf has said he’ll veto the bill.

Most bills spend well over three days in committee, largely because most controversial bills have some form of public hearings where panels will invite members of the public to testify, or they’ll introduce experts to provide testimony on both sides. Rep. Mary Jo Daley, D-Montgomery, moved during a hearing Monday to postpone the bill in order to make time for public hearings, but her motion was defeated and the bill was passed as-is to head to the House floor where Speaker of the House Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, has pledged his support.

“This process sadly has been an abomination,” Rep. Mike O’Brien, D-Philadelphia, said during the hearing. “Shame on us if we were to move forward.”

Supporters of the bill, including the chair of the Health Committee Rep. Matt Baker, R-Tioga, have said politics didn’t motivate the timing of the bill, but rather that “there’s a wide interest in our caucus to move this bill as soon as possible.”

What PA’s laws look like now

You already know this if you’re watching Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. But Pennsylvania’s abortion laws are actually a large reason for why states across the country are moving to change their already-in-place abortion regulations.

A 1992 Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (yes, former Gov. Robert Casey) is one of the prevailing cases guiding abortion laws across the country. It was in response to Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act of 1982 that established a 24-hour waiting period for abortions, required consent for minors seeking abortions and mandated that married women have consent from their husband in order to get an abortion.

The latter portion of the bill was struck down by the court. But the rest was upheld and the Supreme Court ruled that states can enact their own abortion laws, so long as it doesn’t place an undue burden on women seeking to get an abortion. Sound vague? That’s because it is.

In 2013, Pennsylvania passed a bill that stipulates women can’t receive health insurance coverage for abortions through Affordable Care Act funds funneled through the state’s health insurance exchange.

Then there was a bill in 2012, also introduced by Rapp, that would have required women receive a mandatory ultrasound prior to having an abortion. That bill is what caused then-Gov. Tom Corbett to make that not-too-well-received comment that if a woman didn’t want an ultrasound, “you just have to close your eyes.”

The year prior, additional regulations were placed on abortion providers after Kermit Gosnell, a former abortion provider in West Philadelphia, was convicted of murder after operating what was widely called “a house of horrors.” There’s also a mandate in place that all women seeking an abortion are warned of potential risks 24 hours in advance.

Why doctors oppose the bill

The president of the Pennsylvania Medical Society wrote a letter to lawmakers in opposition of the bill, lamenting that passage could set a precedent of lawmakers criminalizing specific medical protocols — a move the legislature hasn’t made before.

A local chapter of the the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologist also told the panel considering the bill it opposed “governmental interference in the doctor-patient relationship.”

The bill does allow for a dilation and evacuation procedure to occur in cases where “either the death of the pregnant woman or the substantial and irreversible impairment of a major bodily function of the woman.” But beyond cutting off abortions at 20 weeks instead of 24, the bill doesn’t allow for a method widely seen as the safest for women seeking an abortion in their second trimester of the pregnancy.

“That is not a decision that I want to be in charge of,” Rep. Jason Dawkins, D-Philadelphia, said during the hearing. “How are we protecting women when we are taking options off the table?”

How PA would compare to the rest of the country

Would this abortion bill really be the strictest in the country if implemented?

Other states have attempted to pass bills that would criminalize the dilation and evacuation abortion method, but none are enforcing the bill at this point.

Bills that would have banned the method were blocked by the courts in both Kansas and Oklahoma and failed to pass in South Dakota and Missouri. Similar restrictions have been proposed in New Jersey, Michigan, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Nebraska, Kentucky and Alabama, according to Rewire

Abortion bans at 20 weeks have been enacted (and subsequently not blocked by the courts) in these 13 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Pro-choice advocates say these 20-week bans are unconstitutional, as Roe v. Wade stipulated lawmakers cannot regulate the unborn prior to fetal viability — a time that many doctors believe is at 24 weeks.

Those who drafted the bill disagree.

“As the baby is capable of feeling pain at these gestational ages, it is unconscionable for us to continue to allow them to continue,” Rapp wrote in a memo announcing the bill. “This legislation is focused on protecting the unborn child from pain and the mother from additional complications.”

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