Abortion politics may shadow final weeks of Pennsylvania governor’s race
HARRISBURG – The politics of abortion could be especially prominent this fall as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and Republican Scott Wagner hit the final stretch of Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial campaign.
A changing U.S. Supreme Court and lawsuits winding through federal courts seem sure to put abortion rights front and center in governor’s races, including in Pennsylvania, where Wolf and Wagner are on opposite sides of abortion bills that could see votes in the Legislature.
Wolf, a staunch supporter of abortion rights, vetoed a bill last December to shorten Pennsylvania’s current legal abortion limit from 24 weeks to 20 and effectively ban dilation and evacuation, the most common method of second-trimester abortion.
Wagner voted for the 20-week bill before he resigned from his state Senate seat in June. Wagner also backs a “heartbeat bill” in Pennsylvania’s Legislature that would ban abortions after the detection of a fetal heartbeat, usually at around six weeks of pregnancy, and a bill prohibiting abortions on the basis of Down syndrome, his campaign said.
Debates before the Nov. 6 election could happen in Harrisburg and Washington.
Pennsylvania’s Republican-controlled Senate has scheduled nine session days in September and October in which it could advance the Down syndrome bill.
Meanwhile, President Donald Trump’s nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to be before the U.S. Senate in September or October.
The appointment of the conservative Kavanaugh has raised fears among abortion rights supporters that the high court will overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling establishing a nationwide right to abortion. That theoretically would leave it to states to decide to what extent to keep abortion legal.
No state has sought a complete ban on abortion in recent years. But steps away from an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court are court cases litigating various efforts in other states to restrict access to abortion.
Pennsylvania’s Legislature has majorities that identify as “pro-life,” and electing Wagner would bring hope to the anti-abortion movement.
One important question is how far state lawmakers who call themselves pro-life would go to limit abortion – or ban them – if they think Wagner would sign the bill.
“It is a good question: when it really matters will they still be there?” said Michael McMonagle, the president of the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania.
The 20-week abortion bill passed with 121 votes in the House and 32 in the Senate, not enough to override Wolf’s veto.
Wolf has said that he would veto a “heartbeat bill” – viewed as a six-week abortion ban – and that he opposes the Down syndrome bill. Wolf’s office said he would veto a complete ban, while Wagner is making no commitment, his campaign said.
Rep. Rick Saccone, R-Allegheny, the sponsor of Pennsylvania’s “heartbeat bill,” said he has no commitment from House Republican leaders to advance the bill in this legislative session, which ends Nov. 30. However, Saccone said he believes it would pass the House, at least, while a complete ban would not.
“The heartbeat bill is a bright line for life,” Saccone said. “I think it’s easier to win support from people for this bill rather than to say ‘under no circumstances an abortion.’ I think you’d lose that.”
For many pro-life lawmakers, a complete ban is a bridge too far, Saccone said. Some would find reasons to be against it, and some would press for exceptions, he said.
The Down syndrome bill passed the House in April by a veto-proof margin, 139-56. Its prospects in the Senate are uncertain, and Senate Republican leaders have made no commitment to bring it to a floor vote, a spokeswoman said.
A U.S. Supreme Court decision on pending court cases – such as a heartbeat bill or a 15-week ban – could further weaken Roe v. Wade and open the floodgates to more legislation in the states, said Sari Stevens, the executive director of Planned Parenthood’s political arm in Pennsylvania.
“Which is why battles for governor’s races are becoming the centerpieces for keeping abortion legal,” Stevens said.
McMonagle, of the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania, said his group is organizing an Oct. 9 rally in the state Capitol to advocate for a reversal of Roe v. Wade.
If the Down syndrome bill goes to Wolf’s desk this fall, McMonagle sees electoral significance.
“Wolf’s veto,” McMonagle said, “will be fresh in voters’ minds before the election.”