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

In Pa. state House races, Democrats emphasize support for abortion rights

The Pennsylvania State Capitol building.
Patrick Doyle
90.5 WESA

With the right to an abortion no longer federally protected, the issue has become a key topic in state legislative races that could determine control of Pennsylvania’s state House.

“When I'm canvasing, I'm hearing more direct questions about this issue, that is specifically saying, you know, ‘What is your stance?’” said Arvind Venkat, a Democrat running in the new House 30th District, which includes North Hills suburbs like McCandless and Franklin Park.

The district is almost evenly split between Democrats and Republicans and is considered a swing seat. It also includes Kilbuck, Emsworth, Ben Avon, and parts of Hampton Township.

Venkat, an ER physician, supports continuing to allow abortion in Pennsylvania.

“I strongly believe that from a health care perspective, from a personal liberty perspective, from a privacy perspective, we should preserve what exists in Pennsylvania,” he said. “And this election will make the case in Pennsylvania — or not — depending on what happens in our state legislative races, what happens in our gubernatorial race. That will determine whether abortion rights are preserved in Pennsylvania or rolled back.”

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Republican candidate Cindy Kirk did not respond to a WESA Voter Guide questionnaire, or to phone calls or emails from WESA. A nurse administrator and former Allegheny County Council member, she is endorsed by the Pennsylvania Pro-Life Federation.

"Both as a nurse and as a mother, I am pro-life,” Kirk’s website states. “I believe abortions should be safe and rare. I do support the critical exceptions that are in the current Pennsylvania law, which include the health and safety of both the mother and the child and the protections for victims of rape and incest."

The strong contrast between the two health care providers on abortion is a microcosm of the legislative debate statewide. As long as abortion rights were protected at the federal level, there were limits on how far states could go to limit access to the procedure. But with the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling overturning Roe v. Wade this summer, Republicans at the state level will have much broader leeway to restrict abortion.

While abortion has been a hot topic in Pennsylvania’s gubernatorial race, winning legislative seats is important as well. Republicans have used their majority to advance a 2019 bill barring an abortion sought due to a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, only to see Gov. Tom Wolf veto it. Such bills would also meet with a veto under Democratic gubernatorial candidate Josh Shapiro.

But the legislature will be able to act on some initiatives without the governor's approval. Representatives elected this fall will likely vote next year on Senate Bill 106, which includes a raft of proposed amendments to the state Constitution that voters would weigh in on if the bill is approved next term. One of the proposed measures would assert that Pennsylvania's Constitution does not protect the right to an abortion. That step that would make it more difficult for judges to overturn any abortion restrictions passed in the future.

“We … understand the importance of the General Assembly races, especially as we see a number of policies, including Senate Bill 106,” said Lindsey Mauldin, director of coordinated programs at Planned Parenthood Pennsylvania PAC.

The PAC has endorsed Dr. Venkat.

The race is being closely watched, along with a several races in suburban Philadelphia, as Pennsylvania Democrats hope to capture the House, or at least grow their caucus.

In Harrisburg, Republicans hold a wide majority in the House chamber, with 113 members, compared to only 90 Democrats. That has given them a bigger seat at the table when it comes time to draft a budget, as well as deciding committee chairmanships and what legislation gets a vote in the state Capitol.

Politicos on both sides of the aisle believe a recent redistricting process gives Democrats more favorable maps than they’ve had in a decade.

“I've been saying since the redistricting plan got approved earlier this year, that control of the state House is in play,” said Christopher Nicholas, a Republican consultant based in the Harrisburg area.

The new 30th district was almost completely redrawn, and has little overlap with the current 30th. The district's current representative, Lori Mizgorski, was herself drawn out of the district, which means the seat is open.

Larry Ceisler, a Philadelphia-based public affairs consultant, said the new districts maps will be helpful for Democrats. So will the Supreme Court's ruling that struck down the right to an abortion, he predicted.

“What they [Democrats] have going against them is the national mood and the economy,” Ceisler said.

Still, Democrats have gotten their hopes up before, only to see them dashed.

“Two years ago, the House Democrats had polling that showed they were going to pick up many seats, many seats, that that especially in southeastern Pennsylvania, there wasn't going to be a Republican left standing. But that wasn't the case,” Ceisler said.

Along with abortion, Dr. Venkat has emphasized his support with funding public services, improved access to health care, and stopping gun violence.

The candidates also contrast in their positions on guns, with Venkat advocating for gun safety legislation and Kirk for Second Amendment rights; and on voting rights, with Kirk advocating for a voter ID law.

Election Day is Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Kate Giammarise focuses her reporting on poverty, social services and affordable housing. Before joining WESA, she covered those topics for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for nearly five years; prior to that, she spent several years in the paper’s Harrisburg bureau covering the legislature, governor and state government. She can be reached at or 412-697-2953.