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Abortion, reproductive health take center stage at the Pennsylvania Capitol

Pennsylvania Abortion harrisburg capitol demonstration protest
Marc Levy
/
AP
Anti-abortion supporters gather on the front steps of the state Capitol during the Pennsylvania March for Life rally, Monday, Sept. 19, 2022, in Harrisburg, Penn.

For the first time since the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its Dobbs decision in late June, abortion was top of mind at the Pennsylvania Capitol.

On Monday, several thousand gathered for a March for Life rally at the statehouse, pushing for more restrictions on the procedure. Speaker Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) urged rally-goers to not “let up” in lobbying for things like late-term abortion bans and public funding cuts for health care centers that perform abortions.

“Women deserve so much more than abortion,” March for Life President of Jeanne Mancini said during Monday’s rally. “Life is not anything to be afraid of. Life is to be embraced and loved.”

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Right now, Pennsylvanians can have the procedure at up to 24 weeks of pregnancy. After that, an abortion is only allowed in cases of rape, incest or to protect a mother’s life. State Medicaid funds can help pay for those procedures.

While state lawmakers haven’t voted on any new abortion legislation since budget talks ended this summer, the GOP and a few Democrats are backing an effort that would re-write the state constitution to say it “does not grant the right to taxpayer-funded abortion [sic] or any other right relating to abortion.”

That idea, part of a constitutional amendment package known as SB 106, could come before voters as early as next spring. After lawmakers approved it this summer, Gov. Tom Wolf asked the state Supreme Court to block the package from moving forward. Justices denied the request earlier this month, referring the case to a lower appeals court.

Barring any court action, the amendment package would need to be advertised and state lawmakers would need to vote on it once more for it to appear on the May primary ballot.

On Wednesday, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration rebuked the March for Life rally by pointing out the types of reproductive healthcare Pennsylvanians can access through the state.

For instance, women who have low incomes can access free or low-cost pregnancy counseling, disease screening and healthcare providers through the Department of Human Services’ Family Planning Services program.

“These are the basic resources and services that people need to live healthy lives with dignity, to take care of themselves, and in turn to have healthy families and communities,” DHS Special Advisor Sara Goulet said at a press conference.

“Instead of stripping rights that will endanger countless people who deserve choice and access to reproductive healthcare, let’s do better by building and maintaining more programs, policies, and supportive systems that benefit everyone,” she added.

Sen. Judy Schwank of Berks County said curbing abortion access could have a ripple effect on women’s health care.
“We should be looking at the full spectrum of care for women and children. It’s all connected,” se said. “Instead, we’re forced to battle attempt after attempt after attempt to take away Pennsylvanian’s rights.”

Wolf has blocked at least three anti-abortion proposals lawmakers sent to his desk during his time in office. But voters will be electing a new governor in November, and the two candidates have nearly polar-opposite views on abortion access.

Republican Doug Mastriano has vowed to support a “heartbeat bill” that would ban abortions after six weeks of pregnancy without exception. Democrat Josh Shapiro has promised to follow in Wolf’s footsteps and veto any new abortion restrictions.

Sam Dunklau reports on Harrisburg for WESA and Pennsylvania's other public radio stations. He previously covered Illinois state government for NPR member station WUIS in Springfield, IL.