Pa. House sends abortion bill to Senate

Greg Gross

A fast-tracked bill by a Republican state lawmaker to tighten restrictions on women seeking to end pregnancies in Pennsylvania was voted out of the House on Tuesday, sending it to the Senate and an uncertain future.

Even if the Senate approves the legislation, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf has promised to veto it.

The controversial measure, House Bill 1948 — introduced by Rep. Kathy Rapp of Warren County in April — would ban abortions after 20 weeks, or five months, of gestational growth. The current limit is 24 weeks, or six months.

The bill also would criminalize dilation and evacuation abortions, which have been characterized as causing the deaths of fetuses by removing their body parts.

The measure was approved by a 132-65 vote after nearly two hours of floor debate. All GOP lawmakers from York County voted in favor. Nine Republicans, nearly all from the Philadelphia suburbs, voted against the bill. Twenty-five Democrats voted in favor.

Five lawmakers from York County — Reps. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township; Stan Saylor, R-Windsor Township; Kate Klunk, R-Hanover; Kristin Phillips-Hill, R-York Township; and Mike Regan, R-Dillsburg — are among the roughly 100 co-sponsors. At least 11 Democrats are among the sponsors of the bill.

Earlier on Tuesday, it was voted out of the House Appropriations Committee by a 22-14 vote, said Grove, who sits on the committee.

OpposedRep. Kevin Schreiber, D-York City, said he voted against the bill because it would create an undue burden on women in the state and would significantly limit a woman's right to legitimate medical care.

"This is the Legislature injecting itself into a very personal choice," he said.

Schreiber also noted the GOP-controlled House has not held hearings on the bill, something he said should happen when a far-reaching bill of such magnitude is being considered.

Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates was quick to denounce the bill and the vote.

“Every pregnancy is different, and a woman considering an abortion later in pregnancy is already facing challenging medical circumstances. Banning abortions later in pregnancy and outlawing a medically proven method of abortion puts women at risk and interferes with doctors’ ability to provide the care that’s right for their patients," Sari Stevens, the organization's executive director, said in a statement.

The bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where the Republican caucus has several moderate members who represent suburban districts and support for abortion rights is stronger.

Six states have approved laws to ban the dilation-and-extraction procedure, according to Elizabeth Nash, who tracks state abortion legislation for the nonprofit Guttmacher Institute, which supports legal access to abortion.

Nash said dilation and extraction is the most common method of second-trimester abortion.

West Virginia’s prohibition is in force, court challenges have stopped implementation in three states and newly passed bans in two states have not yet taken effect.

“This bill is a microcosm of the type of restrictions we’ve been seeing over the past year, in particular, at the state level,” Nash said.

Pro-Life Coalition of Pennsylvania president Mike McMonagle called the bill a “small but significant step toward the day when all children are welcomed in life and protected by law.”

In favor: Proponents have been in favor of moving the limit to 20 weeks since some people argued fetuses can feel pain that young.

According to the nonpartisan FactCheck.org, while some studies have shown a reaction to a pain stimulus in a fetus at 20 weeks' gestation, there is no conclusive evidence that a fetus at that stage has a nervous system that has developed enough to feel pain.

"I think it's a much-needed update to Pennsylvania's Abortion Control Act," said Phillips-Hill, noting the last update was in 1989.

Medicine has advanced greatly since then, allowing some premature babies, even those as young as 24 weeks, to be kept alive and mature to adults, she said.

A recent study of premature babies showed 5.1 percent born at 22 weeks' gestational age survived, and 2 percent survived without impairment, according to FactCheck.org. At 26 weeks, 81 percent survive, and 58.5 percent had no severe impairment.

There are, however, exceptions to the 20-week limit, such as if the fetus is the result of incest or rape or if a mother's health is at risk, said Grove.

Opponents said the bill did not offer exceptions for pregnancies caused by rape and incest, although there are exceptions if the procedure would save the mother’s life or prevent impairment of a major bodily function.

Though Wolf promised to veto the bill should it reach his desk, Grove said there's a good chance representatives could pull together the needed two-thirds majority for an override.

"We're pretty close on a veto override in the House," Grove said.

— Reach Greg Gross at ggross@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @ggrossyd.

Staff writerKatherine Ranzenberger​ and The Associated Press contributed to this report.