News & Politics

With Court expected to strike down Roe v. Wade, PA’s governor race could determine abortion access

The primary election is just two weeks away and some are saying the battle over reproductive rights is also on the ballot.

Protesters at the Supreme Court in March 2020, when the justices were hearing arguments in June Medical Services LLC v. Russo.

Protesters at the Supreme Court in March 2020, when the justices were hearing arguments in June Medical Services LLC v. Russo. Robin Bravender/States Newsroom

By Marley Parish

As the U.S. Supreme Court appears poised to strike down the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, states will decide whether to restrict or ban abortion access. 

And with the primary election in Pennsylvania two weeks away, the battle over reproductive rights will continue on the ballot while one Democrat and nine Republicans seek their parties’ respective nomination for top executive.

According to an internal initial draft majority opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, obtained by POLITICO, the nation’s highest court has voted to overturn the 1973 decision granting abortion a constitutional right and Planned Parenthood v. Casey, a 1992 decision that maintained the right. POLITICO first reported the opinion late Monday night, prompting an outcry from reproductive rights advocates, and Democrats vowing to work and protect abortion access in their respective states.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat and former Planned Parenthood volunteer, has vowed to veto any legislation restricting abortion access. Wolf has vetoed three bills curtailing the procedure that the Republican-controlled legislature passed. 

But with the term-limited governor leaving office in January 2023 and a series of proposals to limit abortion access circulating in the General Assembly, abortion access has become a centerpiece in the gubernatorial race.

“Republicans’ attacks on abortion access, birth control, and women’s health care have made it crystal clear that the stakes of our 2022 elections couldn’t be higher,” Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chair Nancy Patton Mills said in a statement. “Republicans have spent the last decade trying to strip health care access away from women and families, and this ruling would be a win for radical opponents of health care.”

Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the only Democrat running for governor, has long spoken against restricting abortion access. During a December press conference on reproductive rights, Shapiro said the court was “sadly” moving to take away the right to a “safe, legal abortion for women all across America.” 

As the commonwealth’s top prosecutor, Shapiro filed a brief in the Mississippi case, which the U.S. Supreme Court reviewed last year, urging the court to reject the law that makes abortions illegal after 15 weeks of pregnancy. He also filed an amicus brief to support a challenge from the U.S. Department of Justice to the abortion ban after six weeks of pregnancy – and without exceptions for incest or rape – signed into law by Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican.

“A woman’s right to choose and make decisions over her own body is on the ballot,” Shapiro tweeted Monday night. “There is one way to ensure we protect abortion rights in Pennsylvania – winning the governor’s race.”

A March 2022 poll by Franklin & Marshall College showed that only 13% of Pennsylvanians said abortion should be illegal under all circumstances. Thirty-one percent said it should be illegal under any circumstances, and 53% said the procedure should be allowed under certain circumstances.

More than a dozen state legislatures have imagined a post-Roe era, with bills to limit abortion access. And if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the landmark case, more could follow.

Current Pennsylvania law permits abortion for any reason, except for selecting a gender, as long as six months – or 24 weeks – into a pregnancy. In 2019, the state health department reported 31,018 abortions.

Pennsylvania Republicans have proposed limitations on abortion providers, including a bill that requires fetuses receive pain medication before an abortion.

The Republican candidates vying for governor in Pennsylvania are united in curtailing abortion access. But they are divided on how to handle legislation restricting the procedures, especially on timelines for bans and exceptions for rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is at risk.

Sen. Doug Mastriano, a Frankling County Republican running for governor, is the lead sponsor on a bill that would ban abortion as early as six weeks, which is before most people know they are pregnant. Commonly dubbed “heartbeat bills,” the proposals, according to medical experts, are misleading because an embryo does not yet have a developed heart at six weeks gestation.

During a debate last week, Mastriano reiterated his support for restricting abortion access and passing the so-called “heartbeat bill.” He said he does not support exceptions in cases of rape or incest.

Former U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta, former U.S. Attorney Bill McSwain, and businessman Dave White, all GOP gubernatorial hopefuls who participated in last week’s forum, said they would support legislation restricting abortion access. 

Barletta and McSwain said they would allow for exceptions in cases where the mother’s life is at risk, rape, or incest. Former U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart said Pennsylvania needs to protect mothers and children.

Nche Zama, a retired cardiothoracic surgeon, has also said he would support a total ban on abortions – with no timeline – in Pennsylvania if Roe v. Wade was overturned, including prohibiting exceptions for rape or incest.

“I believe that life begins at conception, and if life begins at conception, that baby ought to be taken all the way to the end of the spectrum to delivery,” Zama said. “And any intervention within that spectrum is wrong.”

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, a Centre County Republican, has voted in favor of legislation restricting abortion access. He also joined his Republican colleagues on stage at last fall’s March for Life in Harrisburg.

During a debate last month, Corman – asked whether he would sign legislation similar to the Texas abortion ban – said: “We have to wait to see what the courts allow us to do.” He later said he would sign legislation allowing exceptions for rape, incest, or if the mother’s life is at risk.

Montgomery County Commissioner Joe Gale said he has prayed for the overturning of Roe v. Wade, saying that the decision to allow or restrict abortion should be left to the states. 

“There’s no gray area when it comes to life,” Gale said, adding that he would support legislation restricting abortion and back challengers to Republican incumbents who vote against bills limiting reproductive rights.

Charlie Gerow, a conservative activist, said he supports banning abortion. He said he would sign GOP-drafted bills circulating in the legislature and vetoed by Wolf. He criticized Shapiro for declaring that “abortion is health care.”

In February, Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates urged Pennsylvania voters to vote in the upcoming election, saying that reproductive rights are always on the ballot, but especially now that Wolf – the sole barrier against legislation sponsored by the Republican-controlled General Assembly that would restrict access to abortion – is leaving office.

“We’ve had a champion in the governor’s mansion. And we are going to work tirelessly with our supporters, our partners, and all the folks who are ready to do this work to ensure that we have another reproductive rights champion in the governor’s mansion,” PPPA Executive Director Signe Espinoza added.

In the crowded and widely-watched U.S. Senate race in Pennsylvania, every Democrat said last week that keeping Roe v. Wade would be a “litmus test” for any future U.S. Supreme Court nominee. Meanwhile, every GOP candidate supports restricting abortion access, with only some exceptions.

Marley Parish is a reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.