Pennsylvania state capitol Credit: Harvey Barrison/Flickr

State Sen. Lisa Baker is a Republican from Northeast Pennsylvania who knows well the pain that comes along with losing a pregnancy.

Baker, a mother of one son, stood on the floor of the Pennsylvania Senate Wednesday and told her own story of delivering a stillborn daughter. The debate was about Senate Bill 3, a controversial abortion bill poised to pass through the Pennsylvania legislature without a public hearing or testimony from the medical community.

“Why are we moving something so consequential so quickly without a public hearing?” Baker, whose GOP colleagues pretty roundly support the bill, said. “If this bill cannot withstand an open round of debate involving the medical community… what do we really have here?”

Despite her emotional story and a motion to move the bill back to committee, the bill passed the Pennsylvania Senate by a vote of 32-18 Wednesday. Here’s a breakdown of what the bill does, what comes next and the best ways to have your voice heard:

What the bill does

As we wrote last year when an almost identical bill was under consideration by the House, the “Pain-capable/dismemberment legislation” introduced by Republican Sen. Michele Brooks of Northwest Pennsylvania does two things:

  1. The bill would amend Pennsylvania’s current Abortion Control Act to change the current 24-week cutoff for abortions to 20 weeks except in cases of medical emergency. There is no exception for 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,” a characterization state medical associations have disputed.

Both practices the bill attempts to ban — abortion after 20 weeks and the dilation/ evacuation method — are uncommon and most often used in cases of medical necessity or fetal deformity. In 2014, just 328 abortions (out of 32,000) occurred after 20 weeks statewide, according to the state Department of Health.

In addition, just 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.

Proponents of the bill say it protects fetuses, which they claim can be viable at 24 weeks gestation or earlier. Brooks said during debate on the Senate floor Tuesday that Roe v. Wade only protects abortion through fetal viability and suggested “dismemberment” abortion “rips” apart a fetus “limb from limb.”

Opponents of the bill, including the Pennsylvania Medical Society, say the bill simply limits legal access to abortion. Scott Shapiro, president of the society, wrote in a letter to legislators last year that the group is “highly concerned that the [House] bill sets a dangerous precedent by legislating specific treatment protocols.” Planned Parenthood leaders have said it’s among the most restrictive abortion bills in the country.

No other state is enforcing a ban of this nature, though other states have passed similar bills.

What’s happening right now

PA state Sen. Michele Brooks speaks during a Senate floor debate on SB3. Credit: Screenshot

The Pennsylvania Senate passed Senate Bill 3 Wednesday, and it now heads to the House where an identical bill passed last year. The bill’s expected to pass the House once again and will head to the governor’s desk after that.

Neither chamber held a public hearing on either bill, meaning there was no verbal testimony from the medical community and no opportunity for legislators in committee or otherwise to question experts. Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, motioned Wednesday to send the Senate bill back to committee so a public hearing could be held. The GOP blocked her attempt and the motion failed.

But unlike other controversial legislation, Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has unequivocally vowed to veto any bill that seeks to limit access to abortion, which he says this does.

The state Senate holds a veto-proof majority, so if Wolf vetoes the bill, the Senate could override that veto (though Wednesday’s vote of 32-18 wouldn’t be enough votes to override).

To completely override Wolf, two-thirds of the state House would also have to vote in favor of the bill. That means about a dozen Democrats would have to vote against their party and side with Republicans. In Pennsylvania where members of the pro-life caucus sit on both sides of the aisle, that isn’t out of the realm of possibility.

Even if the legislature can’t override a veto, passing an abortion restriction bill sends a message that Harrisburg is ready to move in that direction. Should a Republican governor be elected in 2018 (rather than Wolf, who is up for re-election) and the GOP holds its large majorities in both chambers, this bill could easily pass then.

Supporters say the bill falls within a state’s rights under Roe v. Wade. 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 SCOTUS decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (yes, former Gov. Robert Casey and father of Democratic Sen. Bob 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 held 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.

How to have your voice heard

The state Senate has already passed the bill. If you have thoughts, you should call your state representative whose contact information you can find here.

You can also donate to/ volunteer with or otherwise support a gubernatorial candidate who shares the same views you do. The 2018 gubernatorial election could swing whether or not this bill eventually becomes law if it doesn’t pass through this session.

Anna Orso was a reporter/curator at Billy Penn from 2014 to 2017.