Supreme Court’s abortion ruling puts spotlight on Pa. governor and state legislative races

Anna Orso, Chris Brennan and Andrew Seidman
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision Friday overturning Roe v. Wade thrust the races for the governor and state Legislature in Pennsylvania into the spotlight as both parties gear up for a midterm campaign that will decide the fate of abortion access in the state.

The court’s ending of a national constitutional right to abortion that had been recognized for 50 years jolted the political landscape ahead of the November general election and underscored the role that state races will have in shaping women’s health care and reproductive policy. It could also affect the campaign for Pennsylvania’s open U.S. Senate seat, which will help determine control of the chamber.

The stark contrast between gubernatorial candidates was clear Friday within minutes of the issuance of the court’s opinion. GOP State Sen. Doug Mastriano, who has said banning access to abortion without exception is his top issue, took to Facebook to write, “Praise the Lord!” and released a statement saying Roe was “rightly relegated to the ash heap of history.”

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Meanwhile, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, a Democrat who has vowed to keep the procedure legal, tweeted it was “devastating day in America” and asked for donations.

The men are running to succeed Gov. Tom Wolf, a term-limited Democrat who leaves office in January. In his seven years in office, he has vetoed three bills passed by the Republican-controlled General Assembly that would have further restrict abortion access in the state.

Shapiro on Friday said he’d do the same.

“It is clear, based on the makeup of the legislature, that we’ll be in a defensive posture, meaning they’ll be sending us bills to do away with abortion rights in Pennsylvania,” he said.

Republicans in the GOP-led legislature signaled they’re considering votes on bills that could change access to abortion, which is generally allowed through about 24 weeks into a pregnancy. Lawmakers have in recent years advanced a handful of bills, including one that would prohibit abortion after ultrasound screening picks up an embryo’s cardiac activity, which can happen as early as six weeks into a pregnancy and before many are aware they’re pregnant.

GOP House Speaker Bryan Cutler and House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, a Republican, said in a joint statement Friday that the ruling “once again makes clear it is the authority of individual states to establish laws that are in the best interest of their residents.”

“This ruling presents a necessary opportunity to examine our existing abortion law,” they wrote, “and discussions around possible changes are already underway.”

Another piece of legislation under consideration proposes amending the state constitution to say “there is no right to abortion” in Pennsylvania and that nothing in the state’s constitution “requires taxpayer funding for abortion.” Proponents say it is an “abortion-neutral” amendment.

But abortion-rights advocates and Democrats are sounding the alarm. Under state law, constitutional amendments must be approved by voters after being passed in two consecutive terms by the legislature. They cannot be vetoed, meaning that if Republicans retain control of both chambers, voters could see the amendment on the ballot as soon as spring 2023.

A Pew Research Center survey conducted this year found that nearly two-thirds of Americans think abortion should be legal in all or most cases, while 37% think it should be illegal in all or most instances.

But it remains to be seen whether abortion is a motivating issue for voters now that the Supreme Court has taken the extraordinary step of overturning a 50-year precedent.

The national political environment is widely seen as favorable to Republicans this year. But Democrats think that the new legislative maps adopted this year through redistricting — which slightly favor Republicans but are more evenly split than the old maps — give them a shot to win control of the House. The state Senate is seen as more safely Republican.

Democrats would need to flip 12 seats to gain control of the state House, and they see some two dozen as in play, with their best chances in the suburbs of Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and Pittsburgh. Party leaders say abortion is a key campaign issue now and for the foreseeable future.

House Minority Leader Joanna McClinton said Democrats will try to ensure voters who want to protect even some access to abortion in Pennsylvania know that the potential for a restrictive ban is “no longer pie in the sky.”

“We now must realize that every single election for governor, for state legislative bodies, and of course for federal lawmakers, that this is in the wings,” she said. “We’ve always used words like ‘women’s rights are on the ballot.’ They are the ballot now. Our rights to make decisions about our own bodies are the entire ballot right now.”

Abortion has already become a top issue in the governor’s race since a draft of the Supreme Court’s opinion was leaked to Politico last month.

The Shapiro campaign and a group affiliated with the Democratic Governors Association have spent millions of dollars on television ads attacking Mastriano’s position on abortion as extreme.

Those ads started even before Mastriano won the Republican primary in May. Shapiro was suspected of using the ads to help pick his opponent, thinking Mastriano would be the weakest general election candidate.

On Friday, he said any of the Republicans in that race would have signed into law legislation to ban or limit abortions and that he did not regret focusing on Mastriano.

Antiabortion activists who support Mastriano say the prospect of restricting abortion in Pennsylvania will be a motivating issue for Republicans this fall.

Enthusiasm is running high among the movement as its long-sought goal of overturning Roe has been realized. Michael McMonagle, president of the Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania, said he believes voters on the right are more likely to be “single issue” voters when it comes to abortion and would reject any candidate who portrays themselves as an abortion-rights advocate.

“They will note the clear distinction between Mastriano and Shapiro,” McMonagle said, “and it’s our job to motivate them to vote.”