Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, listens to Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, at a Sept. 15, 2021 Senate hearing to approve subpoenas for a legislative investigation of the 2020 election. (Capital-Star photo by Stephen Caruso)
(*This story was updated at 2:07 p.m. on Tuesday, 1/25/22, to include comment from Gov. Tom Wolf.)
A Republican-authored amendment declaring that there is no constitutional right to abortion or public funding for the procedure cleared a key state Senate committee on Tuesday, as the GOP moved to head off a potential state Supreme Court ruling that could expand access.
The Senate Health and Human Services Committee voted 7-4 along party lines to approve the proposal sponsored by Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair. It’s the latest iteration of an ongoing GOP strategy to dodge Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s veto pen by amending the state’s foundational document.
The GOP-controlled panel also approved a Ward-authored bill prioritizing public funds for family planning services offered by private hospitals and federally qualified health centers, rural health clinics, and state health facilities. Ward argued the legislation would equitably distribute funds to providers, specifically in rural areas.
“I pray that we live in a country and a commonwealth that respects every human life, most especially those of the unborn,” said Ward, citing a lawsuit now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court as the motivation behind the proposed amendment.
The case, brought by a coalition of abortion care providers, asks the court to lift Medicaid restrictions on taxpayer funding for elective abortions.
The committee’s chairperson, Sen. Michele Brooks, R-Mercer, defended the proposed constitutional change, arguing that it would allow voters to decide whether taxpayer dollars should pay for elective abortions. She also said that current allowances for abortion in cases of rape, incest, or to protect the health and well-being of the mother would remain unchanged.
“The people of Pennsylvania should be deciding this, not providers that are making millions of dollars,” she added.
Ward’s proposed amendment is a move the Women’s Law Project, a statewide nonprofit, describes as “the most dangerous of all” for reproductive rights because the governor cannot veto a constitutional amendment.
Instead, voters get to decide whether to approve the proposed change after it passes the House and Senate in two consecutive sessions.
The constitutional amendment process is lengthy and costly. But Republicans, who hold the majority in the General Assembly, appear to have adopted the strategy to circumvent Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, and his veto pen since successfully curtailing the office’s emergency powers through a referendum.
Wolf, who leaves office next year, has vowed to veto any legislation restricting reproductive rights. In a statement issued by his office Tuesday afternoon, Wolf reiterated that commitment.
“These actions would severely limit access to health care services for Pennsylvanians, specifically lower income individuals,” Wolf said.
SB 152 is not about equity for rural women. It is about defunding Planned Parenthood. This bill is an attack on health clinics that provide vital care.
— Senator Amanda Cappelletti (@SenCappelletti) January 25, 2022
In a statement, Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates said the proposed constitutional amendment “distorts reality” and added that Pennsylvanians want abortion to be a “safe and legal experience.”
Democrats and reproductive health advocates argue that the constitutional change — and Ward’s bill to implement a tiered funding system for family planning services — would restrict access to general health care, including physicals, pelvic exams, breast cancer screenings, and routine checkups.
Now onto SB 956, which is an extreme bill that proposes to permanently amend our constitution and take away any state protection for abortion access in Pennsylvania.
— Planned Parenthood PA Advocates (@PPAdvocatesPA) January 25, 2022
“This is about changing the constitution of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” Sen. Carolyn Comitta, D-Chester, said. “It aims to undermine and eliminate the personal freedom of Pennsylvania women and families to make their own individual and private health care decisions. Think about that.”
Sen. Judy Schwank, D-Berks, dubbed the constitutional change a “Trojan horse” meant to take advantage of the potential overturning of the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade, which is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case surrounding a Mississippi abortion law.
About a dozen state legislatures have proposed laws to limit abortion access. If the Supreme Court overturns Roe, more could follow. And after hours of court arguments last month, the Supreme Court appeared poised to uphold the Mississippi law. A decision, however, could take months.
After a series of failed amendments from Sen. Amanda Cappelletti, D-Delaware, and calls from every Democrat on the panel to vote against the measures, the minority members warned their colleagues that restricting abortion access won’t stop the procedures from happening.
“With no other options for an unwanted pregnancy, abortions will just become more dangerous, if not deadly,” Schwank added.
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