Abortion-rights advocates are sounding the alarm in advance of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on a case that could overturn a half-century of precedent.
Demonstrators rallied across the U.S. in mid-May – including on the steps of the state Capitol – to protest a February draft ruling that signals the high Court’s willingness to strike down the 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling that established a federal right to abortion access.
At a “Bans Off Our Bodies” rally hosted by Planned Parenthood chapters as part of a nationwide protest on May 14, abortion rights advocates and Gov. Tom Wolf chastised the draft ruling, with Wolf calling it a “gut punch for all Americans.”
“Remember those unalienable rights that we were promised in the Declaration of Independence? Turns out they were not so unalienable after all – they weren’t as unalienable as we were led to believe,” Wolf said at the Harrisburg rally. “If the Supreme Court goes through with this ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade, it will put the right of every American to make their own private medical decisions in jeopardy – and that, of course, includes the right to an abortion. That is unacceptable.”
The high Court’s apparent willingness to overturn federal protections for abortion has sparked renewed debate over abortion policy in Pennsylvania and highlighted the role that local lawmakers could have in determining abortion access in the state for years to come.
In the draft opinion, Justice Samuel Alito writes that the Court’s decision on Roe v. Wade was “egregiously wrong from the start” and that the U.S. Constitution does not explicitly protect the right to an abortion. While the opinion does not represent the Court’s final decision, if it remains in place, it would mark a major shift on abortion and leave the issue of abortion access for states to decide – giving the Pennsylvania General Assembly tremendous power over what abortion access will look like in the commonwealth if the Court decides to overturn the ruling.
State lawmakers are already preparing for a post-Roe future, with Democrats pledging to defend the right to an abortion at every turn and Republicans, who control the state legislature, poised to pounce on the ruling to achieve their long-sought goal of curtailing abortions.
House Health Committee Chair Kathy Rapp, a key gatekeeper of abortion-related legislation, said the draft opinion indicates that “the scales of justice will finally weigh in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade.”
“Regardless if this leaked, preliminary U.S. Supreme Court ruling signals final Armageddon for Roe v. Wade, as majority chair of the House Health Committee and the majority co-chair of the bipartisan Pro-Life Caucus, I can confirm that Pennsylvania’s legislature is already well-positioned to successfully advance some of the strongest pro-life legislation in the history of our commonwealth,” Rapp said in a statement.
Any abortion-related bills must first make their way through Rapp’s committee before being voted on by the state House, and Rapp has already shepherded multiple bills through her committee that seek to restrict abortion access.
This session, the House Health Committee has approved multiple bills that would ban abortions in certain circumstances. One, which was approved by the committee on May 25, 2021, would ban abortions based on a prenatal Down syndrome diagnosis. That bill, House Bill 1500, was approved by House lawmakers last June. The second bill approved by the committee, a so-called Heartbill Bill sponsored by state Rep. Stephanie Borowicz, a Clinton County Republican, would prohibit abortions from being conducted if cardiac activity can be detected in the womb. That legislation, House Bill 904, was also voted out of the committee last May, but has yet to receive a vote in the House.
Wolf has reiterated that any standard bill approved by lawmakers will be met with a veto.
Wolf, who has routinely vetoed legislation looking to ban abortion in certain circumstances throughout his time in office, will leave office in 2023 due to term limits, raising the stakes in this year’s race for governor. If lawmakers try to circumvent a governor’s veto power with a constitutional amendment, any governor would be powerless to try and halt such an effort, as they can’t veto constitutional amendments.
Constitutional amendments must be passed by both chambers of the legislature in two consecutive legislative sessions, and then approved by voters in a ballot referendum. A governor cannot approve or veto proposed constitutional amendments.
State Sen. Judy Ward, a Republican from Blair County, has spearheaded an effort to codify language into the state constitution that would underscore that Pennsylvanians don’t have a right to abortion – or to the taxpayer funding of abortion services.
She said in a statement that her measure wouldn’t further restrict abortion access in and of itself. “Currently, Medicaid covers both non-elective abortions and voluntary abortions involving cases of rape or incest, but still withholds funding for all other elective instances. If the constitutional amendment is approved by the voters, this won’t change,” Ward said. “The Abortion Control Act will remain the law as well. The language does not ban abortions, but rather ensures that abortion policy in Pennsylvania comes from the people’s elected representatives.” A spokesperson for the Senate Republican Caucus said that the Senate’s priorities won’t change based on a leaked draft ruling. “This issue remains with the U.S. Supreme Court until an opinion is issued,” said Senate GOP spokesperson Erica Clayton Wright. “The primary focus of the Senate of Pennsylvania is to address the structural imbalance of our state’s economy, which is masked by the influx of COVID-19 pandemic funding. It is critical that we get Pennsylvania’s economy moving in the right direction and address the real effects (President Joe) Biden’s economic plan is having on Pennsylvanians in the form of inflation, rising energy prices, and increased gas and food prices.”
Jason Gottesman, a spokesperson for House Republicans, also said the House Republican Caucus is reluctant to base any decisions on the draft opinion. He said a majority of Pennsylvanians are opposed to “unrestricted abortion access,” citing a March Franklin & Marshall College poll that found that 31% of voters support abortion under any circumstances, 53% think it should be legal under “certain circumstances,” and 13% think it should be illegal.
“We will continue to review pending pro-life legislation and any further decisions will be made through the course of the normal legislative process,” he said.