Pa. abortion advocates celebrate Democratic wins, but efforts to expand reproductive care continue

‘We’re going to continue to fight every day to eliminate the stigma of abortion and improve access to it in Pennsylvania,’ Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates Executive Director Signe Espinoza said

By: - November 27, 2022 6:45 am

Hundreds of protesters rally in Harrisburg on Saturday, May 14, 2022, to promote abortion access (Capital-Star photo).

Abortion access was not directly on the November general election ballot in Pennsylvania. But it was a driving force for voters, who elected a Democrat as the next governor and helped flip enough seats in the state House of Representatives, so Democrats won a narrow — yet complicated — majority for the first time in more than a decade.

While reproductive rights advocates are celebrating the results as an opportunity to ensure abortion remains legal and accessible in the commonwealth, their efforts to protect and expand care aren’t over.

“We have been so focused on playing defense and maintaining access to essential care that there had not been the opportunity to move proactive legislation,” Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates Executive Director Signe Espinoza told the Capital-Star.

When the U.S. Supreme Court stripped away federal constitutional protections for abortion in June, Democrats were quick to campaign on reproductive freedom, trying to communicate what’s at stake if state lawmakers — now the authority over abortion and its legality — move to restrict the practice.

In Pennsylvania, the governor’s race and legislative contests were the focus of abortion advocates, who highlighted previous efforts to restrict the procedure and reproductive health.

Since Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf took office in January 2015, he has vetoed three bills — including proposals that would make abortion illegal at 20 weeks of pregnancy, ban abortion after a Down syndrome diagnosis, and outlaw abortions obtained through telemedicine — sent to his desk. As Republicans ramped up efforts to curtail abortion access, Wolf vowed to block any proposal restricting reproductive health care.

But with Wolf leaving office in January, advocates stumped for Gov.-elect Josh Shapiro, who vowed to carry on Wolf’s promise to block restrictive abortion measures.

However, having a Democrat as the state’s chief executive was not enough to protect abortion access, Espinoza said, referencing a GOP-authored, five-part constitutional amendment package advanced by lawmakers earlier this year.

The bill includes a proposed constitutional change that, if approved by voters, would amend the state Constitution to declare there is “no constitutional right to taxpayer-funded abortion or other right relating to abortion.”

Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, who is on track to become the next president pro tempore in January, said earlier this month that the GOP-controlled chamber is willing to discuss proposed constitutional changes with Shapiro.

The amendment package, currently the subject of an ongoing lawsuit filed by Wolf, could reach voters as early as May 2023 if it passes again in the next legislative session. A governor cannot veto a constitutional amendment.

House Democrats, who won 102 seats in the 203-seat chamber, will have to rely on Republican support to secure the lower chamber’s highest-ranking office, as reported by Spotlight PA.

If Rep. Joanna McClinton, D-Philadelphia, becomes the next speaker of the House, the constitutional amendment package is unlikely to see a floor vote, thus never reaching voters. However, McClinton, the current minority leader, must have support from the majority of House lawmakers to become speaker, who presides over session and calls bills up for a vote.

A spokesperson for the House Democratic Caucus did not answer specific questions about the constitutional amendment package and abortion access but said lawmakers remain “committed to protecting people’s access to health care — including women’s reproductive care.”

Democrats controlling the House means “an end to the onslaught of abortion bans and restrictions that the anti-abortion Legislature has forced through in recent years,” Espinoza said.

It also means abortion access and reproductive health advocates can focus on garnering support for legislation that expands sexual and reproductive health in Pennsylvania, including a proposal requiring comprehensive sex education in public schools. Espinoza also said advocates want lawmakers to remove “onerous testing requirements” and expand telehealth access to contraceptives.

Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates looked to five states where voters either enshrined reproductive freedom into law or blocked abortion restrictions in the November general election. Espinoza thinks voters would support a similar amendment if passed in the General Assembly.

October polling of registered Pennsylvania voters released by Franklin & Marshall College shows support for keeping abortion legal in some or all circumstances.

“In post-Roe America, people are struggling every day to access the care they need, and abortion clinics need support,” Espinoza said. “We’re going to continue to fight every day to eliminate the stigma of abortion and improve access to it in Pennsylvania.”

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