Health Care

Fears fester over abortion access as Tom Wolf’s term nears its end

Gov. Tom Wolf tours Planned Parenthood’s Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center in Philadelphia.

Gov. Tom Wolf tours Planned Parenthood’s Elizabeth Blackwell Health Center in Philadelphia. Office of Governor Tom Wolf

When Gov. Tom Wolf leaves office in 2023 after eight years as Pennsylvania’s chief executive, his legacy will be marked not just by the bills that he signed into law, but also by the ones that he rejected. Wolf, a former Planned Parenthood volunteer, will be remembered for his unabashed support of abortion rights – turning away bill after bill that would have restricted access to abortions. 

Supporters of abortion access have heralded Wolf as a key defender of the right to choose amid efforts from legislative Republicans to ban abortions. But now that the U.S. Supreme Court has declined to block a Texas law banning most abortions in the state, abortion-rights advocates in Pennsylvania are fearful that the Court’s conservative majority could jeopardize longstanding abortion precedent. That, coupled with Wolf’s impending departure, could result in a perfect political storm that leads to a drastic rollback of abortion rights. And that has some advocates worried. 

Since first taking office in 2015, Wolf has fended off attempts from lawmakers to curtail access to abortions in Pennsylvania. In 2017, he vetoed Senate Bill 3, which would have banned abortions after 20 weeks and did not include exceptions for victims of rape or incest. In 2019, Wolf turned away a bill from state Rep. Kate Klunk that would have banned abortions made on the basis of a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis. 

And just last year, Wolf vetoed a bill establishing telemedicine regulations because it would have barred health care providers from prescribing drugs used to induce abortions. 

In an interview with City & State, Wolf said his devotion to protecting access to abortion was born from the idea that politicians shouldn’t dictate decisions made between a patient and their doctor. 

“I don't think politics has any place in the doctor's office,” Wolf said. “I think the position that I and other pro-choice folks take is simply that nature has burdened all of us with a very difficult decision here. The question is not whether we have a choice to make – we do. The question is who's going to make that choice. And it strikes me that the person who ought to make that choice, who knows most about what's going on, is the person most directly involved and that's the woman.”

With a little over a year left in office, advocates who support abortion access view the governor’s looming exit as bittersweet. On one hand, Wolf has been a crucial backstop who has steadfastly supported their cause. The other side of the coin, however, reveals an uncertain political landscape in Harrisburg that will be guided by who wins the governor’s office in 2022. 

“Wolf's veto pen has stopped multiple attacks on abortion access in Pennsylvania,” said Signe Espinoza, the interim executive director of Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates. “Without that commitment to block all the anti-abortion attacks we've seen, barriers to accessing care would be much harder than they already are for most people in the state.”

That’s not to say Wolf doesn’t have his critics. Anti-abortion advocates feel that Wolf’s firm stance on protecting abortion access fails to factor in the lives of unborn children. 

Dan Bartkowiak, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Family Institute, a conservative nonprofit that recently organized Pennsylvania’s first “March For Life” event, said Wolf’s views on abortion are “extreme” and “out of touch.”

Bartkowiak accused Wolf of doing “the bidding of Planned Parenthood” and criticized the governor for vetoing Klunk’s legislation that would have banned abortions on the basis of a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis. 

Bartkowiak said Wolf has advocated for “abortion at all stages, without restriction” throughout his two terms. “I think that's just very extreme and out of touch with Pennsylvanians’ values,” Bartkowiak said. “It just underscores how extreme he has been on this issue in his time in office.”

Wolf had a different view of his legacy. He said his vetoes represent a determined effort to defend abortion access and said that once his time in office reaches an end, he wants Pennsylvanians to remember one thing: “That I was the one who held fast.” 

Despite their ideological differences, Wolf, Espinoza and Bartkowiak all agreed that 2022 will be a pivotal year for the future of abortion access.

Espinoza said control of the executive branch will determine the direction that abortion policy takes. “We're quite literally one election away from essentially becoming Texas,” she said.

The new Texas law, signed into law by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, prohibits abortions from being performed if cardiac activity can be detected in the womb. That activity can typically be detected around six weeks gestation, making the Texas law one of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country. 

The new statute also includes a mechanism for citizens to file civil actions against anyone who performs, induces, aids, abets or pays for an abortion. 

In stark contrast to Wolf, Abbott has made outlawing abortions a focal point of his legislative agenda since taking office. In his State of the State address in February, Abbott vowed to protect unborn children from abortions, saying the state needed “a law that ensures that the life of every child will be spared from the ravages of abortion.”

Abbott got the law he was looking for in Senate Bill 8, which he promptly signed into law. It took effect in September, with the Supreme Court declining to block the law from going into effect – a decision that worried supporters of abortion access who fear that the lack of action by the high court may be a sign of how it may rule on an upcoming case centered around Mississippi’s 15-week abortion ban

But where some see a dangerous precedent, others see opportunity. 

The developments in Texas have reignited a nationwide conversation about abortion policy, and with a gubernatorial race on the horizon, anti-abortion advocates in Pennsylvania see a chance to re-write Pennsylvania’s abortion laws in the not-too-distant future. 

State lawmakers in Harrisburg have repeatedly introduced bills that would ban abortions once cardiac activity is detected in the womb. The most recent versions of those bills have been sponsored by state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz and state Sen. Doug Mastriano, the latter of whom has been rumored to have an interest in running for governor in 2022.

Other Republican candidates that have formally declared their candidacy – including former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, political strategist Charlie Gerow and attorney Jason Richey – have pledged to support more conservative abortion policies if elected. 

Having a conservative in the governor’s mansion would change the political calculus in Harrisburg in a significant way, meaning past attempts to restrict abortion access could find new success. 

“This issue is going to have a significant impact on the upcoming election,” Bartkowiak said. “Obviously, having someone that more recognizes the humanity of the unborn is going to help save lives and help more in Pennsylvania.”

With Republicans in control of both chambers of the General Assembly, the political support is there to get more restrictive abortion policies to the governor’s desk. House Speaker Bryan Cutler and Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward have both expressed their support for advancing such legislation.

Wolf, however, is hopeful that his successor will share his stance on abortion. Attorney General Josh Shapiro is running to replace Wolf, and has pledged to defend abortion access at every turn. 

The race to replace Wolf is still in its infancy, and while there will be plenty of disagreements and political battles along the way, it’s clear that the future of the state’s abortion laws will be a major focal point among gubernatorial candidates in 2022. 

And with a little more than a year left until he leaves office, Wolf wants voters to weigh their options carefully. 

“These are assaults on democracy, these are assaults on freedom. What happened in Texas, I think, is an indication of what would happen in Pennsylvania if Republicans take the governor's race in 2022,” he said. “There you have a preview of what's waiting for you.”