ABORTION IN PA. — WHAT’S AT STAKE?
State lawmakers’ stances of interest to voters, especially after president promised to appoint judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade.
Apolitical fault line opened in Dallas in 1973, and it’s shaping Pennsylvania’s political landscape in ways seldom seen before.
The ground began to move after Norma Mccorvey — better known by her pseudonym, Jane Roe — challenged Texas’ right to prohibit her from having an abortion. Defending the state was Dallas County District Attorney Henry Wade.
More than 45 years later, the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe v. Wade has become one of the starkest divides among Americans and a demarcation between the country’s dominant political parties. This year, it could become the key separation between candidates in Pennsylvania’s marquee races.
On one side are the incumbent Democrats, abortion-rights Gov. Tom Wolf and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey of Scranton, son of an anti-abortion icon, whose complicated relationship with the issue has manifested in a reliably pro-choice voting record.
On the other side are GOP challengers Scott Wagner, the gubernatorial candidate and former state senator, and U.S. Rep. Lou Barletta of Hazleton, Casey’s challenger. Both align with the GOP base, which has long sought to make abortion illegal. That goal could be within reach. President Donald Trump promised to appoint judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade. He could be on the cusp of giving social conservatives their biggest victory in a generation with his nomination of Brett Kavanaugh for U.S. Supreme Court justice. If the high court overturns Roe, states will decide whether abortion is legal within their borders.
“It is brought into clearer view for a lot of voters when there’s such a momentous decision, such as a Supreme Court nominee on the table, and I think that’s why voters might be more attentive to the issue, more than they would in a normal (election) cycle,” said Christopher Borick, political science professor and director of Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion.
Wolf vs. Wagner
At least four pending bills in the state Legislature would tighten — some say all but eliminate — access to abortion in Pennsylvania. Wolf ’s campaign said that Kavanaugh’s nomination and the peril it poses to abortion rights highlights the contrast of the candidates and the importance of re-electing Wolf as the “last line of defense to stand up for women’s rights.”
“It is very clear what would happen if Scott Wagner is elected governor,” Beth Melena, the communications director for Wolf ’s campaign, said. “If a sixweek abortion bill reaches his desk, he will sign it, and then, women’s rights in Pennsylvania will be absolutely decimated.”
Wolf in mid-december vetoed legislation sponsored by Sen. Michele Brooks, R-mercer County, that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks.
Wolf will do “everything in his power to stand up for a woman’s right to choose in Pennsylvania,” Melena said.
Planned Parenthood plans to spend $1.5 million to help re-elect Wolf, said Sari Stevens, the organization’s executive director.
Republicans want to turn that support into a liability.
Jason Gottesman, communications director for the state Republican Party, said Wolf supports special interest groups that donate to his campaign and that they are his true constituency.
Wagner has faced criticism from the right and the left over his position on abortion legislation.
During the Republican primary campaign, Wagner’s opponent, Paul Mango, criticized Wagner for saying the Abortion Control Act was doing its job and that he had no desire to change it.
Enacted in 1989 by the Pennsylvania Legislature and signed into law by Gov. Bob Casey, the Abortion Control Act was the most sweeping attempt by a state to limit abortion rights since Roe v. Wade, and it eventually led to a landmark Supreme Court case. The law set limits on abortion, including informed consent, parental consent for minors, the 24-hour waiting period and reporting requirements, as well as the unchallenged provisions of a 24-week cutoff — unless the life of the mother is in danger — and prohibition of abortion based on gender.
But Wagner has shown his commitment to limiting abortions by co-sponsoring and voting for the 20-week abortion bill that Wolf vetoed, said Andrew Romeo, spokesman for Wagner’s campaign.
The left criticized Wagner when, after being asked about the possibility Roe v. Wade would be overturned, he said “whatever happens, happens.”
Democrats attacked Wagner’s statement as indifferent to the concerns of women.
Romeo said Wagner’s point was that the decision belongs to the judiciary and that he won’t have a say if the Supreme Court takes up a challenge to Roe.
Governor gets a say
But the next governor will have a say in restricting abortion if the Supreme Court rolls back or eliminates women’s rights to the procedure. Pending bills in the General Assembly would do the following:
Ban abortions once a heartbeat is detected, sponsored by Rep. Rick Saccone, R-allegheny County.
Ban abortions after 20 weeks, sponsored by Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-warren County.
Outlaw abortions based solely on a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, introduced in the House by Speaker Mike Turzai, R-allegheny County, and in the Senate by Scott Martin, R-lancaster County.
State statute already prohibits the abortion of a child based solely on gender. Martin said the termination rates for unborn children with prenatal screenings
for Down syndrome were rising. The United States had an estimated termination rate for Down syndrome of 67 percent from 1995 to 2011, according to the National Institutes of Health.
Martin said his constituents support the bill, even as the debate over abortion has been a “contentious one in our society.” For them, the focus on Roe v. Wade is nothing new; it’s always been relevant, Martin said.
Similar bills have passed both chambers in the past, Martin said. None became law.
Wagner, if elected governor, will change that, Martin said.
No room for compromise
Abortion has remained perhaps the most intractable issue in American politics because there’s so little room for compromise between the two sides. Those who are anti-abortion believe life begins at conception; those who are in favor of abortion rights tend to draw that line at viability.
And then there’s Sen. Bob Casey. He’s personally opposed to abortion, while serving as a prominent member of a party with vanishingly little room for abortion rights opponents. He’s the son of an anti-abortion crusader — Gov. Bob Casey defended Pennsylvania’s former abortion restrictions all the way to the Supreme Court, leading to the biggest decision on the issue since Roe — who votes reliably in favor of preserving abortion rights.
Casey announced his opposition to Kavanaugh before Trump nominated him, but it wasn’t because of abortion, he said. Rather, Casey said the process was flawed from the start.
Trump, during the 2016 campaign, made the unprecedented move of promising to choose any Supreme Court nominees from a list of judges approved by the Federalist Society and Heritage Foundation, two conservative groups that have spent decades trying to reshape the federal bench.
The promise shored up his support among the GOP’S most important voting bloc, conservative evangelicals, who had been wary of a thrice-married candidate whose personal ties to religion were, at best, tenuous.
Casey referred to Trump’s outsourcing of Supreme Court nominee selection as a corrupt bargain to pack the court in service of a corporate agenda.
Pennsylvania’s other senator, Republican Pat Toomey, told reporters he had a “delightful” conversation with Kavanaugh and will vote to confirm him. As is custom, Kavanaugh is in the process of having one-on-one meetings with senators.
Toomey said his character, intellect and, particularly, his judicial philosophy or originalism — that is, interpreting the Constitution as it was understood when it was written — would make him a great justice.
“Unlike my Democratic colleagues, I don’t have a set of policy tests for a judge or a justice, precisely because that is not the role of a judge or a justice,” Toomey said. “His or her job is not to decide what they think is the optimal policy and impose that on America.”
Toomey also asked his colleagues across the partisan aisle to give Kavanaugh fair consideration, while expressing confidence in a bipartisan confirmation vote.
Confirming Kavanaugh before Election Day could diminish the abortion issue for Senate candidates while highlighting it for gubernatorial and legislative candidates, who soon could be in a position to sign or veto new restrictions, said Terry Madonna, political analyst and director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College.
It will “definitely ratchet up interest at all levels,” Madonna said.