This week saw the PA House Health Committee vote to advance a bill regulating abortion access that reproductive rights groups like Planned Parenthood decried as the “most restrictive in the nation.” The GOP-sponsored Senate Bill 3, which would limit late-term abortions and leave no exception for rape, incest or fetal abnormalities, is sure to face a veto by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, who has championed reproductive rights.

For legislation as controversial as SB-3 to be rushed through a futile state House vote for the second time in 2017 – and just days before the holiday break – is no accident. Pennsylvania’s Republican gubernatorial candidates want abortion to be the hill that Wolf dies on in 2018. 

“As many times as Gov. Wolf speaks about Planned Parenthood, you're going to hear the Republican candidate, should voters choose Mike Turzai, offer balancing statements. And Wolf has made this his signature issue,” said Turzai strategist Jeff Coleman. “Planned Parenthood is on his Twitter bio.”

Turzai, the Speaker of the House, championed the legislation in the chamber, while fellow GOP candidate and state Sen. Scott Wagner co-sponsored SB-3 – his campaign noted that he was the only candidate whose “ name was on the legislation.” Another GOP gubernatorial candidate, businessman Paul Mango, released a policy paper days ago stressing his support for limiting late-term abortions through legislation like SB-3.

“This (vote) is a reaction to the strident embrace that Wolf has taken to organizations like Planned Parenthood,” Coleman said. “He has been the one who has been the most aggressive on the abortion issue, from either party, in the last 20 years.”

Planned Parenthood concurred that the timing of the vote was intended for maximum “political benefit.”

“This is a prelude for 2018. You can see that with the quickness with which they’ve pushed this bill through,” said Lindsey Maudlin, Deputy Director at Planned Parenthood PA. “On Friday we hadn’t heard the vote was coming up in the health committee...Then we heard the vote would happen sometime on Monday and we would not know when. It’s being pushed through without consultation with medical professionals.”

Outright abortion bans are publicly unpopular. And anxieties are already high among Pennsylvania Republicans that frustration with President Donald Trump will boil over into state races in 2018. But GOP consultants like Coleman believe that campaigning on limiting abortion access will appeal to voters in a purple state like Pennsylvania. 

“These aren’t issues in Pennsylvania that are without nuance. People in Pennsylvania don’t have all black-and-white positions on abortion,” he said. He added that Turzai believes he can still find common ground with more conservative PA Democrats, citing the credo once shared by party stalwarts like Bill Clinton & Ed Rendell that abortion ought to be “safe, legal and rare.”

Forcing a veto is, in essence, an attempt to paint Wolf as an extremist in anti-choice voters’ eyes. Similar efforts to gradually erode abortion access by focusing on supposed “safety” regulations and other technical aspects have been well-documented across the country.

It may go without saying that groups like Planned Parenthood believe these efforts will have the opposite of their intended effect – underscoring Wolf as the sole person standing between sweeping changes to abortion access that Maudlin said were based on “junk science.”

“Gov. Wolf is the only reason that this bill does not become law. Under Gov. Turzai, Gov. Wagner or Gov. Mango this bill becomes law,” she said. “That can’t be stressed enough.”

The Wolf campaign came out swinging against the inference that Wolf’s support for reproductive access was more extreme than the contents of SB-3.

“It is shameful that Republicans are trying to criminalize a woman's health care decisions in consultation with her doctor and force women and girls who have been the victims of rape or incest to carry their pregnancies to term,” said state Democratic Party spokesperson Beth Melena. “It's even more disgusting that they are only doing it in order to gain political points.”