Pennsylvania state capitol in Harrisburg Credit: Jason Pope / Flickr Creative Commons

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Abortion is currently legal in Pennsylvania, even though the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

But it might not stay that way. The Pa. legislature has made a number of attempts to place limitations on abortion. With the Republican majority, anti-abortion lawmakers currently control both houses of the General Assembly. Their most recent attempts to restrict access were unsuccessful only because they were vetoed by the Democratic governor. They’ve also been funding an anti-abortion “crisis pregnancy center” organization for years, writing it into the Pa. Department of Human Services budget.

In some states, the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization allowed laws limiting abortion to go into effect immediately. Pennsylvania had no such “trigger law” on the books.

The commonwealth has already become a destination for people seeking abortions from nearby states that have criminalized the procedure, and Gov. Tom Wolf signed an executive order stating Pennsylvania will not cooperate with any attempts by other states to arrest people for getting, administering, or assisting in abortions. President Joe Biden has also been signing executive orders meant to help abortion patients throughout the U.S. get the services they need.

The city of Philadelphia has donated $500k to the Abortion Liberation Fund of PA, which helps pay for abortions for pregnant people who cannot pay for it themselves. The organization has been around since 1985, when Pennsylvania began prohibiting state Medicaid funds from covering an abortion.

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In November, the state will elect Wolf’s replacement, determining whether future anti-abortion legislation in Pennsylvania is likely to be vetoed or signed into law.

At the same time, lawmakers in Harrisburg are trying to work around the governor by pursuing a constitutional amendment that would explicitly say the Pennsylvania constitution doesn’t guarantee abortion rights. Kansas was a little further ahead on a similar effort, but voters rejected the measure at the polls in August.

Some federal lawmakers are looking to limit reproductive rights nationwide. U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham introduced legislation that would ban abortion after 15 gestational weeks, while still allowing stricter abortion bans on the state level.

With so many moving parts, both in Pa. and on a national scale, it can be easy to lose track of where the law is, where it may be going, and how voters’ choices at the polls factor in.

We’ll keep this article updated with the latest on what you need to know.

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What’s the current status in Pa?

Abortion is legal in Pennsylvania. Here is a list of abortion service providers in the Philadelphia area.

Pregnant people can get an abortion:

  • If they are less than 24 weeks into their pregnancy (defined as 24 weeks after the pregnant person’s most recent menstrual period, which is about 22 weeks after conception, or about 5 months into term).
  • If the pregnant person’s health is put at risk by the pregnancy, even if it’s past 24 weeks.
  • As long as the reason given is not the sex of the embryo or fetus.

Abortion providers do have to follow some requirements, per Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act, passed in 1982:

  • The doctor who performs the abortion must provide information about the nature and risks of the procedure, alternatives to abortion, and the probable gestational age of the fetus or embryo, as well as the medical risks of carrying a pregnancy to term.
  • All of that information must be provided 24 hours before the procedure takes place. (This means a pregnant person cannot get an abortion the same day they first meet with the provider.)
  • Minors who want to get an abortion must have parental permission. They can ask a judge for a judicial bypass of this requirement, but that’s not an easy process, according to Sue Frietsche of the Women’s Law Project.

Some private health insurance providers in Pa. will cover the procedure, but policies vary. Health insurance offered by Pennsylvania’s health exchange under the Affordable Care Act, as well as insurance for public employees, only covers abortion in cases of medical emergency, rape, or incest.

Currently, out-of-state people getting abortions in Pennsylvania have some protection as well. As of a July 12 executive order, Gov. Wolf has said Pa. will not cooperate with any attempts by other states to arrest people for getting abortions, providing abortions or helping others get abortions.

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What are ‘crisis pregnancy centers,’ and how is Pennsylvania supporting them?

The Pennsylvania budget includes over $7 million for Real Alternatives, a private nonprofit organization that funnels money to so-called crisis pregnancy centers.

These centers, often situated near abortion providers, offer support for low-income pregnant people, with the aim of persuading them not to get an abortion. Reproductive  rights advocates describe their methods as spreading medical disinformation.

Harrisburg-based Real Alternatives, which has received state funding for decades, has been drawing scrutiny over its own spending records. A Pennsylvania accountability group had sued Pennsylvania in 2017 for information about how the organization distributes funds to service providers, but a state court said Real Alternatives does not have to disclose that information.

The organization has also expanded to Michigan and Indiana. Michigan no longer funds the organization, however. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer this year vetoed the state allocation for “fake health centers that intentionally withhold information from women about their health, bodies and full reproductive freedom,” Bridge Michigan reported.

Pennsylvania does give funding to some organizations that provide reproductive health care, like Planned Parenthood, but that money is expressly allocated for family planning, not for abortion services.

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How are lawmakers trying to limit abortion access by amending the Pa. Constitution?

The Pennsylvania Senate and House on July 7 voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that would specify the Pa. Constitution does not enshrine the right to have an abortion. (It was one of five amendments Harrisburg legislators are seeking to enact.)

There are several more steps that must be completed for the state Constitution to actually change.

The amendment says declares that “there is no constitutional right to taxpayer-funded abortion or other right relating to abortion.”

Constitutional amendments cannot be vetoed by the governor, but they do have to go through some additional legislative hoops compared to regular abortion restriction bills, which legislators have also been working on in recent years. (More on that below.)

The amendment itself would not outlaw abortion, but “this would be the vehicle for all those bills to then pass,” said Signe Espinoza, executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates.

Now that the amendment has passed the House and Senate once, it would have to be approved by both houses again in the 2023 legislative session. After that, it would need to be approved by Pennsylvania voters as a ballot referendum. The earliest that could possibly happen is next year’s May primary.

If all that happened, there would be very little recourse for defenders of abortion rights in the state.

“If it were to pass again next session and the people of Pennsylvania were to approve it at the ballot box, then there would be not much we could do in any court system to protect abortion rights in Pennsylvania,” said Susan Frietsche, a senior staff attorney at the Women’s Law Project.

Gov. Wolf filed a lawsuit on July 28 arguing that the proposed amendment removing abortion rights violates long-held constitutional protections, and that the GOP’s move to lump together several amendments on disparate topics was unconstitutional. He argues that multiple complex changes like this would need to be made via constitutional convention, a rarely used process.

Wolf asked the state Supreme Court to consider the case on an emergency basis. The Pennsylvania Department of State was required by law to begin advertising the proposed changes to the constitution on Aug. 2, so Wolf wanted the court to take up the issue before then. The state Supreme Court justices denied Wolf’s request for emergency intervention on Sept. 12, but said he could take it up in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court.

Similarly, lawmakers in Kansas, where abortion is allowed within the first 22 weeks of pregnancy, attempted to change the state’s constitution to remove the right to have an abortion. The measure went to Kansas voters on Tuesday’s Primary Election Day, and the majority — roughly 60%- voted against the amendment. If this rejection happened in Pa., it would be quite notable, since statewide ballot questions in the commonwealth almost always pass.

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How are lawmakers trying to limit abortion access by legislation?

Republican state legislators have made multiple attempts in recent years to restrict or ban abortion in Pennsylvania.

When the state House and Senate introduced a 6-week abortion ban in 2019, Gov. Tom Wolf vowed to veto it. It’s been introduced in a couple of consecutive sessions, but hasn’t yet made it out of committee.

The language of the proposed bill would prohibit abortion “after fetal heartbeat is detected.” The collection of cells that eventually becomes a heart starts to emit electrical signals around three or four weeks after conception (5 or 6 weeks after the pregnant person’s last menstrual period). Many people may not know they are pregnant at this point — one recent study found that one-third of people did not know they were pregnant until more than 6 weeks after their last period.

Last year, state legislators tried again to pass a bill that would ban abortions in the case of an in-utero Down Syndrome diagnosis. Both chambers passed a similar bill in 2019, which Wolf vetoed.

In 2017, Wolf vetoed a bill that would have banned abortion beginning at 20 gestational weeks, instead of 24.

“Each time one makes it all the way through the legislature, the governor so far has vetoed them,” said Frietsche, of the Women’s Law Project. “If the governor hadn’t vetoed those bills, we would be looking a lot more like Ohio now. We could be looking like Texas.”

The “heartbeat bill” was introduced by Sen. Doug Mastriano, who is running for governor. The outcome of November’s gubernatorial election will likely determine whether future legislative efforts to restrict abortion will be successful. (More on that below.)

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How do the Biden administration actions affect Pa.?

President Joe Biden has issued multiple executive orders meant to protect abortion access.

On Aug.ust 3, he signed an exectuive order protecting travel for those who are seeking an abortion. Among other measures, it allows states where abortion is legal to seek special Medicaid waivers that would help them treat abortion patients who come from out of state.

In an earlier executive order, Biden took steps to ensure access to abortion medication and emergency contraception in July. The same order tasked Xavier Becerra, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, with quickly developing other methods of protecting abortion access.

Biden has also called on U.S. Congress to codify abortion rights into federal law.

Will the Pennsylvania courts do anything?

Any litigation over current or future abortion rights or restrictions could end up before Pennsylvania judges, who, for the most part, are elected by voters.

If a constitutional amendment denouncing abortion rights were to pass, it could affect how state courts rule on any future abortion rights cases.

The state’s highest court, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, is currently made up of five Democrats and two Republicans. One case currently pending may provide a window into their thinking on the issue: A group of abortion care providers — who together provide 95% of abortion care in the state — is suing over the ban on using Medicaid or Pennsylvania Medical Assistance Program. Women’s Law Project is representing the abortion centers, and are awaiting a date for the oral arguments.

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How could voters’ choice for governor affect things?

The governor can either sign or veto legislation affection abortion rights in the state.

“If there is someone in that office who is not going to veto, I would expect an avalanche of abortion restrictions to get passed by the legislature and get passed into law,” said Frietsche, of Women’s Law Project.

The two people running for governor in the November 2022 election have drastically different viewpoints on the issue.

Democratic nominee Josh Shapiro, the current Pennsylvania attorney general, has vowed to continue Wolf’s pattern of vetoing any bill that would restrict abortion rights. He also wants to expand access to reproductive health care.

Republican nominee Doug Mastriano, currently a state senator, wants to sign the abortion ban he introduced into law. He called the decision overturning Roe a “triumph.”

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How could voters’ choices for state legislature affect things?

The Pennsylvania House and Senate make laws that could restrict or expand abortion access.

With the Republican majority, anti-abortion lawmakers currently control both chambers.

“I’m sure there are and will continue to be [pro-abortion rights] messaging bills, but until the composition of the state legislature changes, it’s not realistic to think they will become law,” said Frietsche, of Women’s Law Project.

The state constitutional amendment that would limit abortion rights in Pennsylvania must be voted on again in the next legislative session, so it’s possible the results of the next election could change its fate. Here’s the breakdown on the initial constitutional amendment vote:

  • In the Senate: 28 for and 22 against. Most Republicans voted for the amendment and most Democrats voted against them. Sen. Lisa Boscola, a Democrat from the Lehigh Valley, voted for the amendments, saying she wants Pennsylvanians to have the opportunity to vote on the changes. Republicans Lisa Baker (Lancaster County) and Daniel Laughlin (Erie County) voted against the amendment.
  • In the House: 107 for and 92 against. Also along party lines with a few exceptions. A few Republican representatives from the Philadelphia suburbs — Shelby Labs (Bucks County), Todd Stephens (Montgomery County), Kathleen Tomlinson (Bucks County) and Craig Williams (Delaware and Chester counties) — voted against the amendment. Frank Burns, a Democrat from Cambria County who touts “conservative values” on his campaign website, voted for the amendment.

Voters can only choose the legislators in their own districts.

This November, there will be 108 competitive races for Pa. House seats and 18 competitive races for state Senate.

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How could voters’ choices for Congress affect things?

While the abortion rights battleground has largely moved to states, with Roe overturned, there have been legislative efforts on the federal level as well. They haven’t gotten very far.

Pennsylvania will choose a new U.S. senator in November, as current Sen. Pat Toomey, a Republican who has consistently voted against abortion, is not running for re-election. Democrats and abortion rights advocates across the U.S. see this race as a pivotal opportunity to pick up a seat in the Senate and widen a razor-thin majority.

Some federal lawmakers have long been trying to codify abortion into law. The Senate voted on it most recently in May — longtime “pro-life” Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, of Pennsylvania, changed his stance and voted in favor — but it still did not have the votes to pass.

U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, of South Carolina, on Sept. 13 introduced a federal law banning abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. It would supercede state laws that are less restrictive, like Pennsylvania’s, but not laws that are more restrictive, such as the near-total bans on abortion enacted in some states post-Roe. Sen. Chuck Schumer, a Democrat and majority leader, would not allow that bill to get to a vote in the Senate. Reports say Graham’s proposal was a political move aiming to insulate the Republican party from voter backlash following SCOTUS’s decision.

Democratic nominee John Fetterman, currently Pa. lieutenant governor, and Republican nominee Mehmet Oz, the TV doctor, are running for the open seat. Fetterman’s position in favor of abortion rights is clear. Oz’s stance isn’t always clear, but after the decision overturning Roe was released, he sent out a statement expressing relief.

The U.S. House currently has the votes needed to pass abortion protections. It passed such a bill last year.

One open House seat in Pennsylvania is in the Pittsburgh area, where Rep. Conor Lamb, a Democrat, is not running for re-election. Running for his seat are Democrat Chris Deluzio, who wants to codify the right to abortion, and Republican Jeremy Shaffer, whose website says he will “advocate for the rights of the unborn.”

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