Acting Secretary of Health Dr. Denise Johnson discusses the importance of investing in maternal-child health during a press conference in Harrisburg on May 25, 2022. (Commonwealth Media Services photo)
When the U.S. Supreme Court released its decision overturning Roe v. Wade and gave states the authority to decide abortion access, Pennsylvania law, which legalizes the procedure up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy, remained unchanged.
The Abortion Control Act permits abortions with some restrictions and requirements — at least for now. With a high-stakes November election and lawmakers in the Republican-controlled General Assembly introducing proposals related to reproductive health, access to abortion and its legality could change in the next year.
Pennsylvania Physician General and acting Health Secretary Dr. Denise Johnson joined legislative Democrats on Tuesday in cautioning against restricting abortion access, testifying before a committee that medical decisions should be between an individual and their doctor.
“Bodily autonomy and privacy should be a human right,” Johnson, a certified OB-GYN physician, told House and Senate lawmakers. “No one should impose a risk on someone without their consent. And I think that in this country, we believe in individual freedoms and the rights of the individual over others.”
The hearing, which was the first in a series of meetings about reproductive healthcare in Pennsylvania, focused on the risks for patients — physical and mental — of restricting or banning abortions, limitations on medical providers, and whether voters should get to decide statewide abortion access.
Even before the June decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, reproductive rights advocates cautioned against attempts to restrict or ban abortion in Pennsylvania.
While Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who leaves office in January 2023, has vowed to veto any legislative proposal limiting abortion access, legislative Republicans have already taken steps to bypass the state’s top executive with the constitutional amendment process.
Before leaving Harrisburg earlier this month for a summer recess, most Republicans and some Democrats approved a five-part constitutional amendment package that could appear before voters as early as May 2023. One of the proposed changes would revise the state’s governing document to state that there is no constitutional right to “taxpayer-funded abortion or other rights relating to abortion.”
The amendment must pass the Legislature in identical form during the next session and be publicly advertised by the Department of State before reaching voters.
Language for the abortion-related amendment came from a proposal introduced by Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, last year. Democrats have said the proposed amendment would impose an abortion ban across the commonwealth.
Ward, however, has said the proposal would give the General Assembly and voters — who vote on ballot questions — power over abortion law.
Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, who spoke against the proposed amendment earlier this month, asked Johnson if a ballot question is the best way to make decisions about abortion access statewide, specifically if the public can understand the consequence of what they’re deciding.
Johnson, outlining the health risks associated with pregnancy — including death — responded by saying that individuals should be able to make informed decisions about whether they want to be pregnant and assume the risks associated with having a child.
“It shouldn’t matter where you are or where you go,” she said. “Your right shouldn’t be impinged on and based on anything else. Also, there should be only your physician or your healthcare provider that can counsel you on what medically is right for you. And so that others — not knowing your medical history, your medical background — really aren’t able to intelligently make that decision for you.”
Pregnancy is risky, Johnson continued, outlining how no case is “clear-cut in terms of what an individual is going to need.” She described patients at her practice whose water broke early, around 15 or 16 weeks, and have “quite close to zero if not zero” chance of carrying the pregnancy to full term.
If that pregnancy is close to full-term, Johnson explained that disabilities presented “are not going to be compatible with long-term life.” She added that individuals might not want to risk infection or their future fertility by continuing a pregnancy.
“Those are difficult decisions, and they really can’t be made by someone on the outside,” Johnson said. “Restricting this access to abortion and the full suite of reproductive healthcare will harm individuals. There’s no question about that.”
More than 32,000 people received legal abortions in 2020, according to legally required data on abortion services from the state Department of Health.
Pennsylvania has collected data on the procedure since 1975.
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