Advocates rally on the grounds of the state Capitol during a national day of action on abortion rights on Tuesday, 5/21/19 (Capital-Star photo by John L. MIcek)
By Liz Hanbidge
Pennsylvania is more like Texas than you think.
Recently I began receiving more frequent calls about women’s reproductive rights. Such calls are not uncommon for me, but usually they relate to Pennsylvania, the commonwealth in which I serve as an elected representative. Lately, though, people mostly wanted to talk about Texas.
I have the deepest sympathy for the women of Texas because of the limitations their government has now placed on their reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy. Texas has become a harbinger for women in this country, forcing us to confront the imminent risk to our reproductive rights. In Pennsylvania, everyone who can or will be able to give birth is at significant risk because such attacks are already happening in our state.
I believe that the U.S. Supreme Court, in refusing to halt the Texas abortion ban, dealt a mortal blow to Roe v. Wade. For many years, Americans have relied on Roe as the guardian for reproductive freedom. Conservative politicians have proposed laws they knew would fall afoul of Roe in order to garner votes. They’ve said asinine and unscientific things, like arguing that women should have ectopic pregnancies reimplanted (a medical impossibility). They’ve passed laws that give corpses more bodily autonomy than living women and girls. Even the governor of Texas, in defending its new law, proves he doesn’t seem to grasp some basic concepts of pregnancy, as data clearly shows young people who are pregnant by rape typically don’t recognize it until the second trimester because of trauma and inexperience.
Roe made many of us complacent because we knew our rights were protected. However, the onslaught of incremental state restrictions has disproportionately affected Black, brown and low-resourced people so much that Roe has been rendered effectively meaningless to some people for a while now. These Pennsylvanians’ reliance on Roe has already been deeply impacted by ongoing attacks on reproductive rights.
While the new Texas prohibition on women’s bodies seems extreme – it is a total ban on abortion at six weeks with no exceptions for rape and incest, and it allows private citizens to sue civilly for $10,000 if a doctor is suspected of performing an abortion – and while the proposed laws aren’t exactly the same, without Gov. Wolf’s vetoes, the women of our commonwealth would be in a similar situation as the women of Texas.
For decades, Republicans in the Pennsylvania House and Senate have pushed through legislation aimed at controlling women’s bodies. Since January alone, the Pennsylvania House passed a bill banning abortion following a down syndrome diagnosis (though not a single disability rights organization supported it), passed a bill requiring women who have abortions or miscarriages in medical facilities to ceremonially bury or cremate the tissue, and a total ban on abortion after six weeks was reported out of the Health Committee.
These bills do not protect women, nor are they rooted in science or health care.
I felt compelled to share the story of my miscarriage in the House chamber this spring in discussing the “fetal remains” bill because, despite the fact that a hospital was where I needed to be, this law – the horrific invasiveness of it – would have prevented me from seeking the care I needed.
Since I told my story in the chamber, not a week has gone by where I have not had multiple women share their own miscarriage stories with me. They have shared their pain, their suffering and their grief. Some are actively miscarrying. Some are telling me stories of decades-old loss. They have told me how inhumane they believe this bill to be. This law, aimed at shaming women seeking abortions, would have detrimental consequences for a vast number of women in the commonwealth.
Abortion is essential medical care. It’s a personal decision made within families and with the advice of physicians. There is no place for legislators in those conversations. Bans like the Texas law mean that children like those I used to represent as an attorney – child victims of rape – can’t get the health care they need. It means that women will be forced to carry non-viable pregnancies to term. It means some pregnant cancer patients can’t receive treatments. It means that women will seek other, unsafe methods of terminating pregnancies. The reasons women need abortions vary and, frankly, they’re none of our business. They’re private and personal medical decisions.
Personal decision-making around reproductive health is not one dimensional, nor should be legislation around reproductive health policy. Such legislation needs to factor in all aspects of situations facing families and not simply be a pretense to show off alleged conservative bona fides. For instance, the down syndrome abortion ban makes no mention of prohibiting abortion when there are other genetic variations leading to physical or intellectual disabilities, such as trisomy 18 and trisomy 13, nor does it make any provisions regarding financial aid for families raising children with these conditions.
Rightfully, such families have concerns about how they will manage to take care of these children because Pennsylvania is already failing to provide for numerous disabled individuals in need of services. In Pennsylvania, we have over 13,000 individuals waiting for services languishing on a waitlist. Over 5,000 of those individuals are deemed to be emergency cases, yet they and their families get very little – if any – of the essential support for which they qualify.
I have had numerous families call my office to tell me they’ve been told their family member will only get desperately needed services when someone else receiving them dies. To score political points, my colleagues have chosen just a small subsection of conditions they feel is important to highlight, while at the same time refusing to allocate resources to care for Pennsylvanians with disabilities.
If we are honest in our intention to reduce the number of abortions, we should be investing in creating a better sex education curricula, lowering Black maternal mortality rates, increasing access to contraception, making childcare accessible and affordable, instituting paid family and medical leave, ending the waiting list for individuals with disabilities, and ensuring that every Pennsylvania worker earns a living wage.
Limitations on abortion do not lower the number of abortions; they move abortions to back alleys and cause women to die. Good reproductive health policy gives women and families more options and lowers abortion rates.
In my dismay that we will likely lose more of the protections of Roe in the near future and what is already happening to the women of Texas, I must emphasize the importance of standing together with allies here and across the country to protect reproductive rights.
We are closer to being like Texas than you can imagine. It’s up to all of us to ensure we don’t end up there, which we can do by demanding our elected state officials protect our rights.
State Rep. Liz Hanbidge, a Democrat, represents the Montgomery County-based 61st House District. She writes from Harrisburg.
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