Gov. Tom Wolf stands in the Mayor's Reception Room in Philadelphia to discuss SB3, a controversial abortion bill.

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Clarification appended

Flanked by two women who told stories of their post-20-week abortions, Gov. Tom Wolf Wednesday once again vowed to veto Senate Bill 3, a controversial abortion bill that some opponents have called one of the most restrictive in the country — and he’s says it’s not because he’s playing politics.

“I am not doing this to actually highlight the difference between two groups of people in Harrisburg,” Wolf said. “I’m doing it because a veto is right. It’s morally right.”

The “Pain-capable/dismemberment legislation” bill, which passed the state Senate last week by a 32 to 18 margin, would impose a 20-week abortion ban, which is a month less than the current 24-week limit. It does not include an exception for rape or incest, but does include some exceptions when the health of the mother is at stake (though what those exceptions would look like in practice is up for debate). The bill would also make a medically accepted technique called “dilation and evacuation” illegal and penalize doctors for performing it.

More than a dozen other states have 20-week abortion bans in place. Several other states have passed bans on the dilation and evacuation method, though federal courts have in several cases struck down those bans, ruling that they create an undue burden on women’s access to legal abortion.

Sponsors of the bill say it protects fetuses, which they claim can be viable at 24 weeks gestation or earlier. Opponents of the bill, including the Pennsylvania Medical Society, say the bill limits access to legal abortion and criminalizes a procedure used by doctors most often when there are concerns about the health of the mother.

“I truly can’t believe we’re still having this conversation,” Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney said during the press conference, adding that the Supreme Court decided on legal access to abortion decades ago. 

In the Pennsylvania Senate, three Republicans (Lisa Baker of Luzerne County, Charles T. McIlhinney Jr. of Bucks County and Daniel Laughlin of Erie County) voted against the bill, along with 15 Democrats. The only Senate Democrat to vote in favor of the legislation was James R. Brewster (Allegheny), who voted along with 31 Republicans.

Much of the fight on the senate floor last week was less about the substance of the bill and more about the fact that it flew through the chamber without a public hearing. No one was able to question or hear testimony on the record from experts or physicians, and the bill’s primary sponsor Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Crawford, found herself defending the process under intense questioning by her colleagues.

“This legislation could be so devastating to women’s health that Republican state legislators refused to allow a single individual to testify at the hearing,” Kenney said during the press conference Wednesday. “Today we are going to share with Pennsylvanians what those legislators did not want anyone to hear.”

Dr. Sindhu Srinivas, director of obstetrical services at Penn Hospital, said she opposes the bill because it “puts politicians squarely between doctors and their patients.”

“I am frustrated and disappointed,” she said, “at how our elected officials are moving forward with this bill without any input from doctors.”

After being passed by the state Senate, the bill now heads to the House, which last year passed its own version of the bill that would have also banned abortion at 20 weeks and criminalized the dilation and evacuation method. That bill passed 132 to 65, and the current Republican majority in the House means it won’t have trouble passing the Senate bill.

Wolf will veto the bill, as he has vowed for months, but there’s a good chance the political battle doesn’t end there.

Two-thirds of both chambers would have to vote in favor of overriding Wolf’s veto which, despite the governor’s use of his veto pen thus far, hasn’t happened. This bill could be different, as Pennsylvania’s pro-life caucus spans both sides of the aisle.

If everyone in the state Senate voted the same way post-veto, it would be two votes short of a veto override, so Senate Republicans would need to flip two of their colleagues who voted against the measure. Last year’s 132-65 vote in the House on a similar bill was just short of the two-thirds threshold as well.

But the makeup of the House is different now than it was then. Now, Republicans hold an even stronger advantage in the chamber and there are still 20 sitting House Democrats who last year voted in favor of the similar legislation. If all those Democrats defect from their party and vote with Republicans post-veto, the House would have enough votes to override Wolf.

Wolf said he’s confident his veto will be sustained.

Even if the legislature can’t override a veto, passing an abortion restriction bill of this nature could make it easier to pass down the line should a Republican governor be elected in 2018 over Wolf, a Democrat who’s up for re-election.

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 Pennsylvania in 2015, just 380 abortions out of more than 31,800 (or about 1 percent) were performed after 20 weeks gestation, according to Department of Health statistics.

Nearly 40 percent of all abortions in Pennsylvania in 2015 were performed on residents of Philadelphia and more than 80 percent of all abortions took place in four counties: Philadelphia, Allegheny, Dauphin and Northampton.

In addition, just 1,588 dilation and evacuation abortions were performed in 2015 and make up less than 5 percent of all abortions performed. Seventy percent of all dilation and evacuation abortions occurred in the second trimester.

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