‘We have an obligation’: House Republicans advance bills to restrict reproductive health, expand gun rights

By: and - May 25, 2021 4:41 pm

With zero chance of their becoming law, House Republicans advanced five bills out of committee Tuesday that restrict access to abortion and expand the rights of gun owners, setting up a hot button debate that’ll split both parties and inspire activism among their respective bases.

The proposals would ban abortion at six weeks, allow for permitless concealed carry of firearms by Pennsylvania residents, ban abortion in cases of a Down Syndrome diagnosis, allow out-of-state firearm advocacy groups to sue municipalities over local gun laws, and mandate all fetal remains are either cremated or buried by the parents or health care facility.

Some of these bills have been passed — and vetoed by Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf — before. Others are the longtime goals of conservative advocates in Pennsylvania and across the country.

Republican legislatures have passed similar six-week abortion ban, so-called “heartbeat bills,” in 13 other states, including in at least two states this year. None are in effect due to the U.S. Supreme Court precedent, Roe vs. Wade, which guarantees the right to an abortion.

Meanwhile, permitless concealed carry, also called “constitutional carry” by gun rights advocates, has been passed in 20 other states, including in three states this year alone.

Republican lawmakers acknowledged that advancing proposals on abortion and guns will inspire their base voters.

Rep. Aaron Bernstine, R-Beaver, told the Capital-Star that Pennsylvanians elected a Republican General Assembly to reflect their values. That includes fiscal responsibility, but also social conservatism.

“Putting us in charge, we have an obligation to deliver the results for the people of Pennsylvania,” Bernstine, who sponsored the permitless concealed carry bill, said.

But either way, the proposals stand little chance of becoming law because of Wolf’s veto pen, which he has not hesitated to yield in the past.

“I want to be clear: I stand firm in my commitment and support of reproductive rights,” Wolf said in a statement Tuesday, reaffirming his pledge to veto any anti-abortion rights bills that reach his desk.

A spokesperson added that he also opposes Bernstine’s concealed carry bill and the preemption lawsuit legislation.

The three bills restricting access to abortion were passed in party-line votes during a meeting of the House Health Committee Tuesday morning. The panel’s chairperson, Rep. Kathy Rapp, R-Warren, called out the high court, which is set to examine Mississippi abortion law and could potentially overturn nearly 50 years of rulings on abortion rights.

“The Constitution is the law of the land. The Constitution, where we have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — life being No. 1,” Rapp said. “Roe v. Wade, ever since it was passed by the Supreme Court in 1973, is a decision by the courts. It is not the Constitution.”

The Pennsylvania Family Institute, a Harrisburg-based nonprofit that opposes abortion rights, supported all three bills. 

Regardless of an eventual Wolf veto, Alexis Stefani, the institute’s communications and policy officer, said the proposals recognize the rights of unborn children and “protect the sanctity of life.”

“This is something that as a society, we should all be able to rally behind,” Stefani told the Capital-Star.

“But we need to keep fighting,” she added.

Current Pennsylvania law permits abortion for any reason, except for selecting a gender, as long as six months — or 24 weeks — into a pregnancy. In 2019, the state Health Department reported 31,018 abortions.

Also Tuesday, the House Judiciary Committee approved the two pro-gun rights bills by a 14-11 vote, with one Republican, state Rep. Todd Stephens of Montgomery County, joining the Democrats to vote against them.

Bernstine’s proposal would allow any Pennsylvania gun owner to conceal and carry a firearm on their person. Under current law, any gun owner could openly carry their firearm, but they must apply to their county sheriff’s office to obtain a permit to carry a concealed weapon. 

Permits still would be offered so Pennsylvanians could concealed carry in other states, as well.

Law enforcement groups, including the state’s powerful district attorneys’ association, have expressed skepticism of the bill. But lawmakers and gun rights advocates argued it would affirm Pennsylvanians’ right to bear arms without interference.

“If legislators don’t understand that the right of the citizen to bear arms in defense of themselves and the state is not to be questioned, then do they even have any legitimate argument for being a legislator?,” Firearms Owners Against Crime Executive Director Kim Stolfer told the Capital-Star, quoting the state constitution.

And even if Wolf vetoed the bill, Tuesday’s committee vote was a chance to pick out friend from foe in preparation for the 2022 primaries, argued advocates.

In a Facebook video, Chris Dorr, an interstate activist from a family of questionable political effectiveness, said that a Wolf veto of the concealed carry bill could be used to mobilize pro-gun activists against both Democratic and Republican opponents of gun rights.

“If there are any Wolfs in sheep’s clothing in these Republican caucuses, they get exposed for us to very clearly see, and we can go and hold them accountable in election season,” Dorr said.

A veto would also make support of constitutional carry a statewide gun rights issue for the 2022 election, which could lead the supporters to rise up, storm to the ballot box, and defeat the Democratic nominee, according to Dorr.

With Wolf’s term coming to an end in January 2023, conservative activists could use the gubernatorial race to find success on their chosen issue. Since 2015, Wolf has been a firewall against the efforts of Republicans to either restrict abortion rights or expand gun rights.

Over his past seven years in office, Wolf has vetoed a 20-week abortion ban, an earlier version of the Down Syndrome abortion ban, a telemedicine bill that banned the remote prescription of abortion-inducing drugs, and a bill to lift restrictions on firearm sales and carrying rights during disaster declarations.

Those positions haven’t changed in the last few months, either. His standing policy to veto bills restricting abortion access stands.

“While members of the Legislature continue to play politics around health choices, I will not let the commonwealth go backwards on reproductive rights or access to health care,” Wolf said in a statement. “I will veto any anti-choice legislation that lands on my desk.”

The bills now move to the House floor, where they could be put to a vote by the full chamber — or languish in legislative purgatory if they don’t have the votes to pass.

Both issues typically lead suburban Republicans and rural Democrats to vote against their respective caucuses’ party line.

Jason Gottesman, a spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus, said that none of the bills had yet to be formally discussed among GOP lawmakers.

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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.

Marley Parish
Marley Parish

Marley Parish covered the Senate for the Capital-Star.