Hundreds of protesters rally in Harrisburg on Saturday, May 14, 2022, to promote abortion access. (Capital-Star photo by Marley Parish)
(*This story was updated at 10:30 p.m. on Friday, 7/8/2022, to include additional reporting.)
The Republican-controlled General Assembly on Friday approved a five-part proposed amendment package, which includes language that would amend the Pennsylvania Constitution to state that it does not guarantee any rights to abortion or public funding for abortions.
The Senate voted 28-22 to send the proposal, Senate Bill 106, to the House of Representatives, which approved the legislation 107-92 after more than four hours of debate.
Late Thursday night, the Senate Rules Committee voted along party lines to advance the bill — including amendment language for voter identification requirements, a system for election audits, a provision to allow gubernatorial candidates to choose their running mate, and a measure that lets lawmakers disapprove regulations without facing a gubernatorial veto — and table a series of amendments proposed by Democrats.
Debate in the House started about 5:30 p.m. Friday after Republicans blocked an attempt by Democrats to introduce amendments in the House Rules Committee.
In sometimes fiery debate, Democrats leveled accusations of intellectual dishonesty and cowardice at Republican members who stated the abortion rights amendment would merely add to the state Constitution an existing bar on the use of tax dollars to fund elective abortions.
Rep. Matt Bradford, D-Montgomery, challenged Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre, to stand and defend the amendment’s second clause that would preclude “any other right to abortion,” under the Constitution.
“You want to ban abortion and that is your right,” Bradford said after Benninghoff refused. “You have to have the intellectual honesty and integrity to defend what you are doing.”
Several Republicans said the bill does nothing more than take important issues directly to voters. The amendments would be the subject of referendums if the House and Senate pass them as bills in two consecutive sessions.
Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta, D-Philadelphia, asked whether the Republican party would accept the results of the referendums if voters rejected any of the amendments.
“Sixty-four members of the Republican party signed a letter to throw out the results of the presidential election, but now you trust the voters,” Kenyatta said.
Rep. Emily Kinkead, D-Allegheny, addressed Republican members who said the amendment would change nothing about existing abortion rights in Pennsylvania.
“What we are doing is setting up a path. Yes, it does not immediately ban abortion, but it is a pathway,” Kinkead said.
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.
“Abortion bans are dangerous for all women,” Sen. Carolyn Comitta, D-Chester, said Friday while speaking on the Senate floor.
Ward, however, has said the proposal would give the General Assembly and voters — who vote on ballot questions — power over abortion law and added that existing law would remain in place.
“The people of Pennsylvania should have a say in issues they feel strongly about,” Ward said. “It is the Legislature that is tasked with making the law, not the judicial branch.”
Senate Majority Leader Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, reminded lawmakers that voters ultimately have the final say on constitutional amendments’ approval.
“We don’t know how this is going to go,” she said. “It could go either way.”
Sens. Dan Laughlin, R-Erie, and Lisa Baker, R-Luzerne, voted against the bill.
While speaking on the Senate floor in 2017 about legislation restricting abortion, Baker detailed how her daughter, Allison, was delivered stillborn after being diagnosed with a rare chromosome abnormality.
“Yes, my life was forever changed by this experience,” Baker said at the time. “My son never got to be the big brother he wished for. My husband and I never had more children. And I lost my father less than two weeks after our daughter’s funeral, which my mother always believed was from a broken heart for our loss.”
Laughlin cited promises made to his constituents when he campaigned in 2016 for his opposition to the bill.
“Today, I’m keeping my word about reproductive rights, and I’m also voting for a budget that has no tax increases,” Laughlin told the Capital-Star. “I’ve made it extremely clear on the issue of abortion. I want to leave our law as it stands — no more or less restrictive.”
Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Northampton, was the only Democrat to support the proposal.
A governor cannot veto a constitutional amendment, which must pass the Legislature in two consecutive sessions and be publicly advertised before reaching voters, who have the final say on the proposal. This proposal is in its first legislative session, and the state’s existing abortion law remains unchanged.
The proposed constitutional amendments would need to pass again the next legislative session — as early as January 2023 — to appear on the 2023 primary election ballot.
Republicans faced backlash from their Democratic colleagues for pushing the proposal through committee late Thursday night and criticism for using the constitutional amendment process to “circumvent” the legislative process.
“It is meant to be an exception and not the rule,” Sen. Maria Collett, D-Montgomery, said of the “sacred” system used to amend the constitution.
Sen. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, argued that the Allegheny Reproductive Health Center v. Pennsylvania Department of Human Services court case is the reason lawmakers opted for the constitutional amendment process. The 2019 case challenges the state Medical Assistance Program’s ban on abortion coverage and is now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said Thursday night — while lawmakers on the Senate Rules Committee debated the legislation — that reproductive rights advocates were already contacting him about coming to the Capitol to protest the abortion-related amendment.
“There will be a reaction,” Sen. Steve Santarsiero, D-Bucks, said ahead of Friday’s vote.
And by the time lawmakers approved the bill, dozens of people had gathered for a rally on the Capitol steps calling for reproductive rights.
Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates Executive Director Signe Espinoza criticized Senate Republicans for the late-night vote, adding that “anti-abortion legislators should be ashamed of themselves.”
“They pulled a fast one on us, thinking that we wouldn’t be paying attention,” she said. “But boy, are we paying attention.”
With the House and Senate still in session on Friday, some lawmakers stepped away to join the crowd.
“This is bulls**t,” Kinkead said. “And I was tone-shamed by my opponent for saying f— the last time, but this is f—— bulls**t.”
She said that there are many other issues that legislators could be attending to but “denying birthing people their rights,” must be more important to Republicans.
“We are not supposed to be amending our constitution to remove rights from Pennsylvanians,” Kinkead said. “The constitution protects our rights. It doesn’t deny us our rights.”
Rep. Elizabeth Fiedler, D-Philadelphia, said that she asked her Republican colleagues in one-on-one conversations if they believe that the decision for her to carry a child and birth a child should be theirs to make.
“They did not like the question,” she told the crowd. “They said that question makes me uncomfortable.”
“And so I would say to our Republican colleagues: If you can’t answer that simple question one-on-one, how can you be here today trying to make that decision for all birthing people across the commonwealth?”
Fiedler said that Democrats will continue to fight for the constitutional right to abortion no matter what decision comes from the amendment package.
“I would just say to every person out there who is pregnant, or has been pregnant, or could one day become pregnant, that we’re here with you. We’re standing in solidarity with you, and we will not give up,” Fiedler said.
Advocates later took their protest inside the Capitol and outside the House chamber, leading chants that could be heard from the Senate floor, Democratic Sens. Collett, Katie Muth, and Amanda Cappelletti — who briefly participated — said.
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