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An initiative to provide nonpartisan, independent elections journalism for southwestern Pennsylvania.

Proposal to limit abortion rights nationwide underscores importance of issue in Pa. Senate race

Republican nominee Mehmet Oz (left) and Democratic nominee John Fetterman are competing for Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate seat.
Chris Pizzello / Marc Levy
Republican nominee Mehmet Oz (left) and Democratic nominee John Fetterman are competing for Pennsylvania's U.S. Senate seat.

A nationwide abortion limit proposed by South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham would curtail abortion rights in Pennsylvania — and allow state officials to curtail them further if they wished. And while the proposal is unlikely to get a vote this year, it assures that abortion rights will continue to be a central issue in the highly competitive race to replace retiring Pennsylvania Sen. Pat Toomey.

Graham’s bill bars abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy, except in cases where the abortion is the result of rape or incest, or where the pregnancy poses a fatal risk to the woman. Physicians who provide an abortion outside those limits could face civil and criminal penalties of up to five years in prison.

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The vast majority of abortions — more than nine in ten — take place before the 15th week. But Graham's bill would sharply reduce access beyond that point in the Keystone State: Pennsylvania law currently allows for abortion up to the 24th week.

In a chamber led by Democrats, Graham's bill will likely not get a vote before the end of the year. But control of the Senate is very much up for grabs this November, and at a lunchtime press conference, Graham said, “The abortion issue in America has always been part of our political discourse. It will continue to be.”

That much, at least, seems beyond debate.

Within the hour, Pennsylvania's Democratic Party issued a statement saying that Graham’s move made it “clear that abortion rights are on the ballot in Pennsylvania’s Senate race," in which Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz faces Democrat John Fetterman. The outcome of the contest could determine control of the Senate, and whether Graham's bill gets a vote or not.

"Oz would be a vote in favor of this national abortion ban," the statement contended. "We cannot trust Mehmet Oz to be the deciding vote in the Senate.”

In a statement, Oz campaign spokeswoman Brittany Yannick said that "Dr. Oz is pro-life with three exceptions: life of the mother, rape and incest. And as a senator, he'd want to make sure that the federal government is not involved in interfering with the state's decisions on the topic."

While the statement didn’t mention the fact, Oz had previously put himself on record expressing misgivings about at least one provision in Graham’s bill. At a press conference last week, Oz said, “There should not be criminal penalties for doctors or women regarding abortion.”

But Oz’s statement did not expressly say he would vote against Graham's proposal, and his campaign did not immediately respond to a follow-up query from WESA explicitly asking about whether he would be a “no” vote on it.

In any event, Graham’s bill does provide the exceptions that Oz is asking for, and it does give states some leeway to pass abortion rules — as long as they want to make those rules stricter. “Nothing in this section may be construed to preempt or limit any Federal, State, or local law that provides greater protections for an unborn child,” it says.

Fetterman’s campaign issued a statement of its own on Tuesday afternoon, saying that Oz needed to answer the question, “Would you vote for Sen. Graham’s bill to ban abortions after 15 weeks?”

“It’s a simple yes or no question, and ‘it should be left to the states’ is not a real answer,” the Fetterman campaign statement continued. “The people of Pennsylvania deserve to know how Oz would vote on this bill if he were in the U.S. Senate.”

For his own part, the statement said, “John believes abortion is a decision that should only be made by a woman and her doctor.” It repeated a long-standing pledge to vote in favor of legislation that would enshrine the long-standing Supreme Court precedent of Roe v. Wade into a federal law.

That ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court earlier this summer. Since then, some Republicans have sought to downplay the issue — which polling suggests may be energizing many voters who support abortion rights — while others have seen it as an opportunity to rapidly scale back abortion rights.

Graham’s new legislation, in fact, doesn’t go as far as a nationwide abortion law proposed by Pennsylvania’s own Mike Kelly. Kelly’s bill would limit abortion after just 6 weeks — a point at which a pregnancy may not even have been detected — with no exceptions for rape and incest.

Other Republicans, meanwhile, have expressed caution about federal action on abortion. When abortion rights were the law of the land, it was a Republican talking point that the issue should be decided at the state level.

But Graham put the matter in partisan terms that Democrats, who have been making abortion rights a central issue, might well thank him for.

“If we take back the House and the Senate, I can assure you we'll have a vote on our bill," he said. "If the Democrats are in charge, I don't know if we'll ever have a vote on our bill."

Nearly three decades after leaving home for college, Chris Potter now lives four miles from the house he grew up in -- a testament either to the charm of the South Hills or to a simple lack of ambition. In the intervening years, Potter held a variety of jobs, including asbestos abatement engineer and ice-cream truck driver. He has also worked for a number of local media outlets, only some of which then went out of business. After serving as the editor of Pittsburgh City Paper for a decade, he covered politics and government at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He has won some awards during the course of his quarter-century journalistic career, but then even a blind squirrel sometimes digs up an acorn.