FILE - A cyclist rides past the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., on March 22, 2021. Republican state lawmakers may soon decide which among the scores of potential amendments to the Pennsylvania Constitution will have any shot of making it to a voter referendum — a tactic that can get politically divisive policies around Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf's much-used veto pen. The comparatively large number of proposals pending in the General Assembly address topics that range from voting rights to abortion and real estate taxes. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
Top stories of 2022: End of Roe v. Wade puts abortion access on the ballot in Pennsylvania
Reproductive rights became a top concern for voters across Pennsylvania after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in late June.
Suddenly, the idea that Pennsylvania could lose abortion rights became a real possibility: Doug Mastriano, a GOP state senator who supports complete abortion bans, was running for governor and Republicans supportive of restrictions controlled the state House and Senate.
But Democratic victories in key races in November ensured abortion would remain accessible and legal in the state for now. Mastriano lost to Josh Shapiro, who ran largely on the promise he would veto any GOP-backed anti-abortion bill that landed on his desk. And John Fetterman won the U.S. Senate race on an abortion rights platform.
August polling from Franklin & Marshall College showed nearly 90% of Pennsylvania voters believe abortion should be legal in either all or certain circumstances. Berwood Yost, director of the Center for Opinion Research and the director of the Floyd Institute for Public Policy, said their research shows abortion was a key issue for voters.
“For a long time, Republicans could express opposition to abortion without real consequences, because there was nothing they could do from a constitutional standpoint, to change it,” Yost said. “The Dobbs decision (overturning Roe) changes that calculus.”
Reproductive rights advocates say there is more to be done to ensure patients have access to abortion and to expand the availability of maternal health services.
Abortion remains legal up to the 24th week of pregnancy – and later if the patient’s life is at risk.
But in July, GOP state legislators passed a constitutional amendment that would eliminate the right to an abortion.
“We are all sustaining our opposition to the amendment and will continue to do so until it’s no longer a threat,” said Tara Murtha, director of strategic communications at the Women’s Law Project.
The proposal needs to pass a second time in the next session before it can be on the ballot. Spotlight PA reported that Republicans in the state House, who are likely to hold a majority until mid-February due to Democratic vacancies, might try to pass controversial constitutional amendments during that time.
Murtha says there are other barriers to abortion access that existed before the end of federal abortion protections. One of the biggest barriers to abortion access, she says, is the state’s ban on Medicaid coverage of abortion. The Hyde amendment prohibits the use of Medicaid funds for abortions, but some states have laws that allow it if the pregnancy could cause damage to a person’s health.
In 2019, the Women’s Law Project and other providers sued the state over its Medicaid ban, which prohibits low-income people from using Medicaid funds for abortions. Advocates argue the ban violates the state’s Equal Rights Amendment because it treats women’s healthcare needs differently than that of men’s. In October 2022, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court heard oral arguments for the case.
Some anti-abortion advocates in Pennsylvania are not discouraged by the outcome of the 2022 midterm elections.
Maria Gallagher, Legislative/PAC Director for the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation, an affiliate of National Right to Life, says the majority state legislature candidates endorsed by the PA Pro-Life Federation PAC won their races.
“In the year ahead, we are looking forward to advocating for the rights of Pennsylvania’s most vulnerable populations,” Gallagher said, referring to fetuses and their mothers, people with disabilities and elderly people. “These individuals—at both the dawn and the twilight of life—deserve a voice in public policy and their lives need to be safeguarded and protected from all harm,” she added.
Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania Advocates Executive Director Signe Espinoza said Democratic wins in the midterms were cause for celebration, but also said “there’s still so much work to do.”
“We are still living in a Pennsylvania where there are people struggling to access care every single day, and still traveling hundreds of miles to access abortion care, like that has not changed,” said Signe Espinoza,
In 2017, roughly 85 percent percent of Pennsylvania counties had no clinics that provide abortions, according to the Guttmacher Institute.
Espinoza said Planned Parenthood Advocates will continue to push against Pennsylvania’s abortion restrictions, such as the 24-hour waiting period.
“If you’re already a parent, you have to figure out childcare. If you’re working, you have to take off from work. We’re talking 24-hour mandatory counseling, and then figuring out when you can come in to receive health care,” Espinoza said.
Democratic lawmakers also held two hearings on the need to regulate so-called crisis pregnancy centers, which are anti-abortion centers that present themselves as women’s healthcare clinics despite providing no medical services. There are 156 crisis pregnancy centers in the state, but only 17 clinics that provide abortion, experts noted during the hearings.
In May, Rep. Mary Jo Daley, D-Montgomery, introduced a bill that would bar such centers from sharing private health data with other organizations.
Reproductive health care advocates also stress the need to address health disparities that existed before Roe v. Wade was overturned. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health, more than 105,000 women between the ages of 18 to 44 live in counties with “little or no obstetric care,” the Pennsylvania Capital-Star reported.
A recent March of Dimes report found that six counties in Pennsylvania–Cameron, Forest, Greene, Juniata, Sullivan, and Wyoming — are considered “maternity health deserts,” which means they lack birthing centers or hospitals that provide obstetric services, midwives and obstetric providers.
Note: An earlier version of this article had incorrectly referred to the Women’s Law Project as the Women’s Law Center.