As abortion debate rages, some Pa. lawmakers challenge their party — or themselves

By: - May 16, 2019 6:30 am

Bridget M. Kosierowski is sworn in to the Pa. House. (Courtesy Pa. House Democrats)

State Rep. Gerald Mullery walked onto the House floor Tuesday sick to his stomach.

The Luzerne County Democrat, who represents historically blue coal country quickly trending red, voted “yes” last session to approve a ban on abortions based on a diagnosis of Down syndrome.

But before Tuesday’s redo, he wasn’t sure where he would fall.

On the one hand, Mullery calls himself “pro-life,” except in cases of rape, incest, or a medical emergency. But this year’s bill was different, with some minor language changes that made him concerned that an aggressive district attorney could prosecute women who seek an abortion.

And while state law currently bars abortions based on the gender of a fetus, Mullery said he doesn’t think the statute has ever been used.

“Would this bill, if enacted, have the ability to prevent one abortion from occurring? I don’t think it does,” Mullery told the Capital-Star.

“To me, this is political theater. I’m not here to engage in that. If you want to bring a vote up on Roe v. Wade, let’s vote it,” he said. “If you’re going to do these types of things so you have the ability to stand on the stump and make political speeches or send out mailers, I’m not here for that.”

So when Rep. Dan Frankel, D-Allegheny, presented on the House floor Tuesday an advisory from the General Assembly’s nonpartisan bill drafting bureau calling the legislation unconstitutional, Mullery made up his mind. He’d be a “no” this time around.

The bill passed 117-76. A similar measure passed the House last year with 22 more yeas.

Mullery was one of a number of lawmakers who either changed their vote or went against their party colleagues Tuesday, as states across the country debate when and how a woman can exercise her constitutional right to an abortion.

All told, five Democrats, including Mullery, went from a “yes” to a “no.” Other lawmakers weren’t as forthcoming about their switch.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Rep. Dan Deasy, D-Allegheny, said as he hustled past a Capital-Star reporter.

He wasn’t the only one who explained his vote in curt terms.

Rep. Frank Farry, a Bucks County Republican who dissented both years, said “the bill is unconstitutional.” He did not elaborate.

The other Republicans who voted “no” are also all from the Philly suburbs: veteran Rep. Todd Stephens, of Montgomery County, and two first-year lawmakers from Bucks County, Todd Polinchock and Wendi Thomas.

Some of the 15 Democratic legislators who backed the ban offered more of an explanation.

Rep. Pam Snyder, D-Greene, said she is proudly “pro-life from cradle to grave” — meaning she opposes abortion and the death penalty, and wants fully funded state programs to help mothers and children.

“There’s a difference between pro-life and anti-abortion,” she said. But, Snyder added, she couldn’t help but “feel like I am kinda a lone wolf” given the loss of other Democrats who’d vote with her against abortion access.

Another Democratic representative, Harry Readshaw, who represents parts of south Pittsburgh, said he’s been elected for the last 13 terms as a candidate opposed to abortion rights who believes in the “sanctity of body.” He’s yet to hear from constituents who oppose his vote.

Looking at his 26 years in the Legislature, Readshaw said the focus shouldn’t be on a lawmaker’s past vote, but on if a bill has a shot of going any further.

“I’m a veteran here, as many other people are, but it’s not a question of what we did yesterday,” Readshaw said. “The question is when this legislation goes over to the Senate, will it even be considered?”

The Senate did not hold a vote on last year’s measure. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has already said he’d veto the legislation.

Not every Democrat who voted “yes” Tuesday has been in Harrisburg for as long as Readshaw. Rep. Bridget Malloy Kosierowski, D-Lackawanna, won a special election in March to replace former Rep. Sid Michaels Kavulich, who died last fall.

Kavulich was one of the House Democrats most starkly opposed to abortion rights. Kosierowski’s Republican opponent tried to portray himself as a natural heir to Kavulich, because of his stance against abortion.

But Kosierowski said she thought of her predecessor Tuesday as she decided to vote “yes.” While she had concerns about doctors being held criminally liable, she thought she had to be true to her district.

While none of the Democratic lawmakers who voted “yes” said they felt ostracized by fellow members, proud progressive and first-year Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, did take unnamed politicians to task on social media.

“Why spend your money, time, and effort mastering fields of study in the sciences or medicine when you can just be a politician with no discernible expertise and a seat handed down to you from your uncle/brother/daddy and make medical decisions for us all!” she tweeted Tuesday night.

“It’s calling out the trend of largely male politicians making decisions with no expertise in the medical field,” Lee told the Capital-Star.

Those politicians, Lee continued, sometimes set up political dynasties, passing down power from generation to generation. This is a trend that can be seen nationwide, she added.

Lee herself successfully primaried Rep. Paul Costa, an Allegheny County Democrat with nearly 20 years of experience in the Legislature. He is the brother of Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa.

One member does fit Lee’s description — Rep. Brandon Markosek, a first-year Allegheny County Democrat whose father, Joe, was a lawmaker for 26 years. In his final four years as a lawmaker, the elder Markosek voted in favor of two 20-week abortion bans.

Like his father before him, Brandon Markosek supported the Down syndrome ban. He declined to comment on the vote or Lee’s tweet.

House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny, didn’t make much of Lee’s Twitter comment, pointing out she didn’t specifically name another lawmaker.

“She’s concerned about 203 legislators sticking their noses in and trying to be a doctor,” Dermody said.

But the caucus, he added, votes “their conscience and their districts.”

Dermody was blunt about the idea that someone would consider a primary challenge to one of those 15 Democrats because of their vote Tuesday.

“I think they’re wrong and they’re out of line,” he said.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.