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Abortion issue could have more weight in Pa. gubernatorial race this year

Written by Dave Davies/WHYY | Jul 20, 2018 5:28 AM
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Photo by AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Activists demonstrate in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, Monday, June 27, 2016.

(Undated) -- If a more conservative U.S. Supreme Court overturns the Roe v. Wade decision and returns the issue of abortion rights to the states, Pennsylvania's next governor could find a bill banning abortion on his desk.

In an interview, Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said his course would be clear. "I'll veto it," he said.

Republican challenger Scott Wagner was reluctant to address the question when I asked him after a town hall meeting in Montgomery County.

"You know, that's a federal issue," he said. "I'm not running for president right now. I'm more focused on the problems in Pennsylvania."

I asked again, noting that if Roe falls, an abortion ban might reach his desk as governor.

"It may, and whatever happens, happens," he said. "Right now, in this interview, I'm not committing to anything."

High stakes

The issue of abortion rights has long been part of Pennsylvania politics, but it's likely to assume greater prominence this fall if President Donald Trump's nominee, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, replaces Justice Anthony Kennedy on the U.S. Supreme Court.

In many states, abortion rights advocates are looking to Democratic governors as a last line of defense if legislatures pass strict abortion bans.

Sari Stevens, executive director of the advocacy arm of Planned Parenthood, said in an interview that's just how she sees Wolf.

"The governor is currently a brick wall. He's our backstop," Stevens said in an interview. "But that could potentially get even more dramatic if the Supreme Court returns the right to legal abortion to the states, which is absolutely possible."

Stevens said Wolf's commitment to reproductive rights for women is longstanding -- before he entered politics, he and his wife were volunteer escorts for patients visiting Planned Parenthood health centers in York County.

Wolf said in a telephone interview he knows where he stands.

"Whatever happens to Roe v. Wade, the state Legislature will have to weigh in on women's health care rights," he said. "They have already presented me with bills that restrict women's rights to choose, and I have vetoed them, and I will continue to do that."

Last year, Wolf vetoed a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks. Another bill banning abortions after six weeks has been introduced in Harrisburg.

Stevens says Planned Parenthood's advocacy arm, Pennsylvania Votes, is committing at least $1.5 million in an independent effort to help re-elect Wolf. The money will go toward door-to-door canvassing, direct mail and digital advertising, especially in the Philadelphia area.

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Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, left, and Republican state Sen. Scott Wagner, right. (Photo: Photo illustration by Flint McColgan composed of York Daily Record file photos.)

Wagner's dilemma

Wagner, who voted for abortion restrictions in the State Senate, said he is "proudly pro-life."

His reluctance to commit to signing an abortion ban as governor in our interview is understandable, given the politics of the race.

He probably already has the votes of most social conservatives. To win, he needs to reach out to moderates and independents.

Franklin & Marshall College pollster Terry Madonna said that, for nearly 20 years, his surveys have shown more than 70 percent of Pennsylvanians believe abortion should be permitted at least in some circumstances. He said Wagner will feel pressure to clarify his position.

"He's not going to be able to avoid it," Madonna said. "It's going to make a big difference if Scott Wagner says that he supports a ban on abortion -- no abortion at all. That view is held by about one in five Pennsylvanians."

Will Wagner's reluctance to commit to an abortion ban hurt him with committed opponents of abortion rights?

I spoke to Matthew Wagner (no relation to the candidate), education director of the Pennsylvania Pro Life Federation. He said he isn't troubled that Wagner won't answer a hypothetical question from a reporter.

The election presents a clear choice for those who believe abortion is wrong, he said.

"Gov. Wolf has made it abundantly clear that he is indebted to and tied to radical pro-abortion insiders like Planned Parenthood," Matthew Wagner said. "Whereas Mr. Wagner is committed to protecting the most vulnerable among us. "

So for now, Wolf promises to veto an abortion ban, and Wagner prefers not to say.

The issue is certain to come up in debates as the election approaches.

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